Up or Down, it’s time for the SDLP decide where its future lies…

Here’s the full text of my analysis for the News Letter’s election supplement on Tuesday. It started out as an attempt to examine the whole game, but more and more (not least because of ‘the simple fix‘) you sense the major dilemma facing nationalism primarily belongs to one party, rather than two:

It’s been a strange campaign. With little over a year of functional executive activity, none of the political parties have a great deal to trade on, and there is little sense that much has changed in the political game since 2007.

Within nationalism, the best that can be said for the SDLP is that it has not fallen apart and in some areas, like South Down, it has consolidated its base.

It’s a modest achievement for a party accustomed to the relatively undivided loyalty of the nationalist electorate.
Sinn Fein on the other hand have continued their march from nowhere into government with some confidence, even if at times, it has lacked a certain administrative aplomb.

Despite Sinn Fein’s strategically important gains in the Republic’s recent general election I doubt it will play a role in moving many votes in this election.

When it comes down it, most Nationalists are as moved by southern politics as southerners are by our increasingly inscrutable post Troubles quarrels; which is barely at all.

Where Sinn Fein certainly retains an edge over the SDLP in the assured and confident performance of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness; who has been, by far the single most popular public figure in the past Stormont administration.

Margaret Ritchie on the other hand has struggled to make a positive public impression. Her decision to hand over the party’s only ministerial post to her colleague Alex has almost completely removed her from public view.

Yet one of the stranger aspects of this campaign is just how little the two main Nationalist parties are likely to be in direct competition with each other. Each find themselves in positions where it is difficult for them to take seats directly from one another, though there are some opportunities to rebalance Assembly seat totals in favour of wider nationalism.

The SDLP’s only obvious vulnerability is in North Antrim, where the likely beneficiary of boundary changes is the TUV leader, Jim Allister. The only thing can save Declan O’Loan is an unprecedented degree of apathy amongst Unionist voters.

There is still a yawning gap in the professionalism of the way the two Natioanlist parties fight their on-the-ground campaigns. For instance, Sinn Fein’s systematic use of marked registers gives them a fairly precise map of their electoral ground.

In some constituencies the SDLP have begun to adopt similar mapping techniques, but it is not party wide, and coupled with a general lack of discipline, in West Tyrone for instance, the party may yet yield critical gains to their old rivals.

What has failed to dawn on some of the SDLP’s old guard is that with the traumatic years of the troubles fast fading from the general memory, their voters, and former voters, are giving Sinn Fein credit, if not for much else, for their unity, sense of purpose and refusing to put the personal before the wider political mission.

There is little doubt that Sinn Fein will be confirmed as the popular champion of Northern Irish nationalism on May 5th. Due to boundary changes in Belfast, they may even become the lead party of the leading block in the city council chamber.

Yet there are powerful motivations for SDLP activists to make even modest gains on their 2007 total. Two extra seats could gift their party with a second Ministerial seat, and provide it with a significant and much needed boost to its public profile.

The question that will exercise the leadership of the SDLP is are they to be the Fine Gael of ten years ago, beginning their long march out of fractionalism and failure; or having achieved its main objects, it is merely the spent match of 1960s Northern Irish radicalism?

We’ll only begin to sense an answer to those questions when the smog of electoral war begins to clear. And whether it has a convincing answer to the obvious further question of whether Irish nationalism really needs it any more.

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  • john

    The SDLP look set to make a couple of gains in this election an opinion shared by most of the predictions over on assembly2011. This will obviously be a welcome result for the SDLP and will show that the slide of the past years has stopped. The only problem is that boundary changes are coming next time round and together with the reduction in number of MLA’s I think the SDLP will be hit the hardest.

  • oracle

    The SDLP long term future looks as bleak as an unfinished apartment complex on Dublin’s Quayside.
    They try hard to be pragmatic and inclusive and indeed go out of their way to observe the Political version of the Marquis of Queensbury rules in the squabble for the nationalist hearts and minds with Sinn Fein.

    What they comprehensively fail to understand no matter how simply it is explained to them, or how often it’s explained to them, or for that matter how graphically it’s described to them is that they are in a” monster bitch-fight” and they just don’t have the ballax for a bitch-fight, especially one to the death!

    They’ll stumble and bumble along until they just collapse and die as a political entity and the carcass will languish with those of the Irish Independents Party, Vanguard, UKUP, The Women’s Coalition, and the Natural Law party.

  • socaire

    I was under the impression that it was not lawful to convey information gleaned from the registers (marked by polling agents) to anyone outside the polling station. It used to be the custom to mark two registers and pass them back and forward between activists outside and agents.

  • Mick Fealty

    My fault I fear. My understanding is that you can legally get information about whether someone has voted in the last two elections.

  • Zig70

    It will be an odd thing to me for the SDLP to fall. They had such a high standing. There is such an obvious target electorate. The people running the party obviously care more for their own political ideals than representing the SDLP voter. So be it. Can’t believe you can’t find a charismatic nationalist nonSF politician, who just wants to be loved and lead the party, a la Tony Blair. I can’t think of one. The rot started when Hume faded. The 11plus is an example of where the SDLP would rather piss about and bicker with fellow nationalists than try to achieve their own objectives of no selection at 11.

  • socaire,

    “Polling agents will wish to note on their own
    copy of the register of electors who has voted,
    but they cannot take this marked copy of the
    register out of the polling station until after the
    close of poll.” source [pdf]

  • socaire

    Nail on head,Nevin. Things have tightened up because the bad republicans used to go around and hassle the non voters – if you can believe that!!!

  • Light23

    I’m not a nationalist (I favour the union but not in a dogmatic way) and would probably have given SDLP my second preference in the Assembly elections,. However, Magaret Ritchie seems like a bad leader and I got the impression that the party were more interested in political point scoring than working as part of a coalition. There’s not much point in having a candidate who you agree with, if they in turn can’t agree or make compromises with others.

    In the leader’s debates she’d bicker and complain, spit out a canned version of her “vision”, and then go back to bickering. She was more interested in attacking everybody else out of principal, than really outlining what she wanted her party to do.

  • Theres certainly going to be a conversation/debate within the SDLP in the aftermath of this Election…..as I am sure will be the case in all other Parties.
    And as the thread indicates this conversation in the SDLP will be conducted against the “up or down” background.
    Going into this Election with 16 seats, most reasonable analysis would put the SDLP on roughly the same figure this time…..anything lower than 14 or higher than 18 would be a major surprise.
    The conversation will therefore be conducted against near euphoria or near despair and despite the best efforts of SDLP members and SDLP detractors we have not seen enough evidence to say with any certainty which will be the background of the debate.
    The important thing is that the “questions/opportunities/problems” are exactly the same whether there is a narrow “victory” or “narrow defeat”.
    The SDLP has been re-positioning itself. And without an election for four years has the space and time to think things thru. There is I think some evidence of haste …….with Westminster and Assembly Elections.
    In the wake of these Elections, the SDLP needs to identify those things that were achieved “IN SPITE OF” and “BECAUSE OF”.
    Likewise it will need to look at those “defeats” in the same spirit….Identifying the defeats “IN SPITE OF” and “BECAUSE OF”.
    To give an example…Margaret Ritchies leadership.
    If the results go well in next 48 hours, it will be inevitable that Margarets leadership will be praised.
    If the results go badly her leadership will be questioned.
    But the honest debate would have to centre on whether the success was DUE TO or in SPITE OF Ritchies leadership.
    And likewise the honest debate in defeat would be the same……IN SPITE OF or BECAUSE OF Ritchie.
    Of course this is but one area. The official SDLP line would be Margaret Ritchies leadership is not an issue.
    Actually it is. I have known people going into the polls and voted SDLP despite uncertainty about that issue. and I have known people who couldnt bring themselves no vote SDLP for same reason. In fairness Ive also come across one person who voted SDLP because of Margaret Ritchie. Nor would I underestimate tactical voting or second preferences which Margaret can attract.

    Likewise SDLP “success” might be achieved in SPITE OF the Party being an organisational near shambles in SOME constituencies. The decision to run four candidates in Foyle will be glossed over if it works…….any analyst in Party HQ knows its a bad decision. There will be bad blood if it doesnt work.
    As Ive said SUCCESS would blur the issue.
    Clearly there are just not enough SDLP members on the ground. And although its a cliché to say that they have aging candidates, the reality is that there is a missing generation of people in mid years who possibly have walked away from SDLP in 1980s and 1990s. For whatever reason. Maybe they were just “bottlers”, a charge that cannot be levied against any of those older members who remained steadfast.
    Clearly South Belfast is now the intellectual home of the SDLP. Young QUB graduates turned out thru SDLP Youth and sent back home as candidates. Some will replace the older folks. Good luck to them.
    But it seems thats just one avenue. What the SDLP needs most is Members. And some on the sidelines will watch the results with interest to see if there is a place within SDLP for new blood.
    In some ways thats more likely to happen with adverse results. Yet as much needed if the results go the “right” way.
    I can have no role in that internal SDLP Conversation. I am NOT a Member. But I am a Well-Wisher. There is no point in an “honest” conversation on this thread. The conversation cant include those who wish the SDLP ill.

    I would hope that as the last vote has been put in a ballot box and the first vote has not been counted, and we dont know if it is a good weekend or a bad weekend that the SDLP has the courage to LISTEN to those who wish it well.
    In the past (notably its own Conference) the SDLP has shown a willingness to listen to useless TDs from the Republic (from three Parties), Dr Norman Hamilton, Duncan Morrow (!!!), Davey Adams. They have an obsessional interest in listening to people who wouldnt spit on them if they were on fire.
    Maybe the conversation should include voices closer to home.

  • Kevin Barry

    Very good analysis Mick.

    As has been highlighted before, SF’s progress in the north has halted a bit as they seem unable to really tap into the nationalist areas in close proximity to large unionist areas. In a way, this is a god send to the SDLP as it has helped them shore up their vote a bit.

    However, if SF, a party that is clearly better organised than the SDLP, actually get their act together and come up with a strategy to get votes in these areas then that could spell the end of the SDLP.

    Also, I am a floating voter and a nationalist/republican; while we all know their is no love lost between the SDLP and SF, what FJH has been saying rings very true; on the doorsteps and out in the real world nationalists don’t really care much for the personal differences between the two parties, we just want them to fight our corner on matters important to us. Unfortunately, I see the SDLP bicker and live off past glories (insert a pun about republican commemorations) with the peace process as opposed to leading from the front on issues important to nationalists. They used to be out front, now they are always on the back foot.

  • fjh, I’ll widen the focus to give a different perspective. Perhaps the old maxim ‘nice guys don’t win’ holds true. The UUP and SDLP have limited financial resources but they’re reluctant to go for the jugular, unlike the ‘big beasts’.

    London and Dublin are still likely to do whatever they can to promote the ‘baddies’ in order to protect their key institutions and uncritical or naive supporters of the ‘peace process’ help facilitate the sanitisation process.

    The massive reduction in acts of killing and destruction are to be welcomed but, according to the Grapevine, intimidation and the fear factor continue. When some local representatives asked if charges would be brought following an admission that incriminating evidence had been found they were told to keep their noses out. More recently there have been allegations that a businessman was told that it would not be a good idea to press charges against a candidate. This begs the question, “How far does the fear factor permeate our governance process?”. It may be sufficient to stop the UUP and SDLP going for the jugular and for their candidates to enter a political fight with one hand tied behind the back. Non-lazy journalists have been asking questions but when victims are too afraid to speak they’ve got no evidence to present.

  • Little James

    From Socaire

    Nail on head,Nevin. Things have tightened up because the bad republicans used to go around and hassle the non voters – if you can believe that!!!

    This is still happening, i had a SF “rep” at my door about 8pm enquiring if i was going to vote & if i “needed transport”, the polling ststaion is about 200 yards from my house. I then got a call at 11pm, as i was going to bed, from a different SF “rep” asking if i had voted……….

  • Nunoftheabove

    Any electoral success the SDLP enjoy serves as a reminder to me of how amateurish, how parochial and just how banal party politics in the north really is.

  • Kadfoomsa

    Ok, I admitt it, I am not an SDLP supporter, although I have alot of time for a number of people in the party.

    So, take what I say with a piece of salt.

    I think that Margaret Ritchie, strangley influenced it seems by Rasputin McDevitt has taken the SDLP down the wrong road, in truth I dont think you could be sure what you are voting for under her leadership.

    I think the SDLP need to sit down, have a think, and reinvent themselves into something new – and be cohesive and disciplined about it.

    Regarding South Down, a stronghold of the SDLP in every sense but I think that if Sinn Féin had a stronger set of candidates and a stronger movement on the ground that they could take South Down.

    Personally, I would like to see SF and the SDLP work together in the cause of Irish nationalism rather than the current nonsence.

    Irish National Congress anyone?

  • Nunoftheabove

    Much like the UUP, I always think that a party which does need to or feels it needs to sit down and reinvent itself and come up with new ideas which justify its existence and give it a purpose has by definition ceased to have a continued reason for existing.

    I don’t think the SDLP are quite having their heads bashed against the rocks to the same extent that the UUP are just yet but they’re in the same orbit. Retaining Ritchie as leader will accelerate their decline.

  • Nunoftheabove

    That Fearghal McKinney hasn’t strung a single coherent sentence together all evening on the BBC.

  • Sean o Russell

    Irish National Congress anyone?We’re 20 years past that point….although fianna fail might need a leg up so you’d never know….i’d say once fine gael slash 24/25 seats in the south sinn fein will be an irrelevency….the famous 14 will shink to the infamous 4 and then it’s back to the blackboard….That Republican Congress in Queens is now defunct or inactive,the new breed of the intelligentsia….
    SDLP-Labour-Now that it’d be really pretentious….Self- Interest and Self-Preservation will keep the heart of the SDLP pumping for quite a while …… look at the UUP…it’s hard to kill a bad thing……But hope is in the heart of the desperate….

  • Kevin Barry

    ‘In the past (notably its own Conference) the SDLP has shown a willingness to listen to useless TDs from the Republic (from three Parties), Dr Norman Hamilton, Duncan Morrow (!!!), Davey Adams. They have an obsessional interest in listening to people who wouldnt spit on them if they were on fire.’

    I couldn’t agree more. Where I am from, they have always been known as the stoops and for some of the above reasons. It reminds me of when Hume went on Newsline to tell nationalists that we now lived in a post-nationalist world; he and his colleagues looking for nationalist votes don’t need to be greener than green but they should remember who would be voting them in.

  • sdelaneys

    Sinn Féin’s ‘marked register’ is not a register taken from the polling station, it’s a register marked with a high degree of accuracy due to local knowledge as to how people will vote. Definite Sinn Fein supporters are marked with a specific color, definite anti S.F voters are marked with a different colour and this leaves those that SF are either not so sure of or who they think could be persuaded to vote for them. Canvassing, then, is tuned to the differences, don’t waste time on definite non supporters and don’t spend too much effort of the good supporters but don’t neglect them with while, finally, look at those who might be persuaded and give them plenty of care and attention. that’s what the ‘marked register’ is about, targeting canvassing and this can be done well before elections are even called. It’s clever and it works but for it to work needs very good local intelligence. Sheena Campbell developed this strategy and it was called the ‘torrent’ strategy before she was assassinated by loyalists close to QUB.

  • Mark McGregor


    Have SF stopped taking information from marked registers out of polling stations?

  • john

    Not going great for the SDLP – to be honest I thought they would have done better, Pretty much every close call has gone against them O’loan in NA, Burns SA No 3rd seat in SD, Gallagher in FST. EA was suppose to be a possibility as was strangford but despite favourable boundary changes it looks like the SDLP vote just didnt turn up. Pity they had a real chance to push ahead of the UUP but instead they seem to have been dragged back with them. As for the UUP as bad as it is they can count themselves lucky it wasnt much much worse by scraping in UB, NA and Strangford
    SF are having a great election but even at that could have had even more joy in UB and EL.

  • sdelaneys

    M McG ‘Have SF stopped taking information from marked registers out of polling stations?’
    Of course not, all parties do this as part of chasing up those who have not yet voted on election day itself ; S.f also uses it as part of, what I mentioned earlier, drawing up their marked register for ongoing canvassing. In any realistic canvas it is important to know who has not voted in previous elections and try to work out how to motivate them to vote, (and at one time, though to a lesser degree now, how to steal their votes). Sinn Fein’s marked register, though, is a much more sophisticated job.

  • Zig70

    I thought it was nice to see a woman in the leaders debate. MR could develop into a good leader given 4yrs to work on. If the debate within the SDLP doesn’t include taking on board what the target electorate want then leadership won’t be enough. A lot fewer in east antrim are going to vote 1st pref SDLP next time. It will be interesting to see how they handle it.

  • aolbfs

    The SDLP is on the albeit slow road to disintegration.
    I believe that is a good outcome for the party.

    The reason Sinn Féin has the support of the overwhelming majority of nationalists and republicans is because those same people have seen SF be true to everything they said they would do.

    It wasn’t the SDLP which was the author of the Good Friday Agreement, even though they love to laud themselves as the genesis of the Irish peace process.

    It was Sinn Féin which delivered an end to the war, the standing down of the IRA and decommissioning.
    It wasn’t the SDLP.

    People have seen SF over the last number of years actually leading and really representing the nationalist/republican community.
    They have seen SF and DUP work together and get things done, despite their differences.

    When the SDLP and the UUP sat at the big table, they did what they could to diminish the influence of SF and the DUP.
    Now they’re squealing like stuck pigs that they’re getting a dose of their own tried and tested medicine.It really makes me smile, lol!

    Sinn Féin is beyond question an infinitely better managed and run political party than the SDLP has ever been. Obviously this fact is going to impact on their electoral performance.

    SF representatives are everyday people living everyday lives among the people who vote for them. Most SDLP representatives are from well-to-do backgrounds, and the party mindset is most certainly middle-class.

    Sinn Féin appeals across the economic divide much more than the SDLP ever has.

    But all the above is preamble to one simple reason for the slow demise of the SDLP.
    It is NO LONGER a nationalist party.
    John Hume stuck his foot firmly in his mouth when he labelled the SDLP for what it REALLY is, a post-nationalist party.

    This was confirmed by Conall McDevitt (by the way, whoever referred to him as “Rasputin” – spot on! All he does is lecture and hector and badger) on UTV on 7th May when he stated that the SDLP needs to move from being a nationalist party which attracts progressive votes to a progressive party with majority support within the nationalist community.

    The semantics of this position should not in any way be underestimated, since it absolves the SDLP from its core duty to represent and advance the cause of Irish reunification, which cause it has singularly failed to represent or advance since the formation of the party. Lord Fitt sold out completely to the British.
    John Hume uncovered the post-nationalist heart of the SDLP.
    Conall Mc Devitt, the annoying blow-in, now further distances the party from its nationalist core.

    The single reason that the SDLP is in decline in the north is because it is partitionist and cannot, because of its make up or policies, deliver on Irish unity.

    It refuses to stand for election in the south with the rest of our people.
    It refuses to amalgamate with a party which is acting to reunite Ireland.
    Its only foray into “all-Irelandism” is the import of McDevitt from the south to lecture us all up here about how we should conduct ourselves.

    Nationalists and republicans in the north WANT IRISH UNITY AND INDEPENDENCE.
    Sinn Féin operates all over the island, in both governments. It is developing the infrastructure necessary to bring reunification back to the centre of Irish politics and thinking. It is showing that this can be peacefully achieved. THAT is why SF is winning out and the SDLP is in decline.

    Good riddance when it’s gone, I say!