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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