Post election, the SDLP’s position is like…

West Ham struggling near the bottom of the table desperately trying to avoid the drop… What particularly brought them to mind was Robbie Keane’s spectacular miss against Blackburn Rovers at the weekend…

Despite sharing some of the same institutional problems with the UUP, the SDLP remain the more competitive, at least at Assembly level. But in both sets of elections, their long term decline has continued.

And there have already been glowering looks (though nothing said, concretely at least) at Margaret Ritchie, from others in the top team, a ‘manager’ with less than 18 months experience in the job. There have been doubts expressed publicly even amongst those responsible for putting her in charge of the club.

In the Assembly election the SDLP had a competitive chance of winning in six seats. Only one of those competitions went their way.

Yet it is not just poor leadership that’s at fault, but a long term culture of amateurism and the predominance of parish fiefdoms, which have dogged the party from the time it was a virtual hegemony within Northern Irish nationalism.

The SDLP lacks ambition in the same way soccer teams do that languish too long near the drop zone. Even their own fans begin to hate them for bringing them seemingly endless misery.

One exception was Declan O’Loan, who almost defied the pattern both by hard work across the constituency and by defying team discipline and looking for a merger with the opposition. A bit like a member of the Hammers’ team suggesting they merge with Millwall.

And yet he almost won a seat many (including myself) had written off before the campaign began.

They also lost a seat South Antrim to the DUP and failed to gain three more in:

  • East Antrim (where Sinn Fein’s Oliver McMullan easily scooped up most of the nationalist votes);
  • Strangford (where the margin of defeat increased despite an influx of new nationalist voters);
  • South Down (where the party had the equivalent of Robbie Keane’s open goal).

That last would have brought the score in the match between themselves and Sinn Fein to 1-1. Not a great result, admittedly, but better than continuing the years of defeats at the hands of a better organised, better financed, better disciplined and more professional rival.

Even quality strikers like Robbie Keane tend to misfire when playing with a team that’s come to expect the kind of failure that comes with steady decline.

Their one success came when Omagh based former councillor (who lost his seat in 2005) Joe Byrne saw off two spoiler campaigns to take the seat formerly held by local hospital campaigner Keiran Deeney.

But look at where they have lost these competitions. They are all in rural Ulster. And the waves are closing in behind them as Sinn Fein replace (admittedly not as rapidly as they might) their older generation of MLAs with with committed youngsters, like Phil Flanagan in Fermanagh South Tyrone.

The worst that can be said of Margaret Ritchie is that she failed to turn the party’s fortunes around in the very short time she’s been in charge. But, with the exception of her own traditionally conservative rural Catholic base, Mid Ulster, Newry and Armagh and East Londonderry the SDLP is shrinking rapidly towards the towns (ie, in the opposite direction of the Ulster Unionists).

Not only will that limit the overall size and quality of the pool of players available to them, it will also, by default if not design, entrap them in the same kinds of urban fastnesses from which the Irish Labour party has found it almost impossible to break out.

In the “Little Belgium” of Northern Ireland (ie, two non-interoperable polities in one), that’s the equivalent of ‘permanent opposition’.

The SDLP needs to find, from wherever it can find it, the energy, leadership and above all, disciplined organisation to reverse its declining fortunes. The party’s managerial approach (long before Ritchie took over) has been to let the players (the candidates) sort everything out for themselves.

They were able to away with that when when they (effectively) had no opposition back in the 70s and 80s. But times have changed.

Like West Ham, the SDLP is a ‘club’ which often dreams of its glorious past. Paddy Power has West Ham at 7/1 to avoid the drop this season. And like the SDLP, they may continue to subsist on the scraps of the larger parties’ table for some considerable time and several seasons to come.

But changing the ‘manager’ will mean absolutely nothing if the outmoded Corinthian culture of the ‘old club’ remains the same. And, they need to understand there is a war on.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty