The SDLP’s clearest future is ‘as a social-democratic and labour party’

I recall suggesting to a fairly senior member of the SDLP not 18 months ago that the party had insufficient political capital to squander it on a ‘Fianna Fail versus Irish Labour’ squabble. It was a counsel that, along with much else publicly expounded from this blog, apparently fell on deaf ears.

With which southern party do you want alignment may be a great parlour-game, but for a party in the SDLP’s perilous position, it is the wrong question (at least for now). Robin Wilson, writing in today’s Belfast Telegraph has a much more apposite one, first decide who you are! First he sets the scene, with a lightening recapitulation of the party’s history, which concludes with the following:

…the conservative, nationalistic assumption that all Protestants would always and only be British nationalists (unionists) and all Catholics (Irish ones) could only benefit the ‘republican movement’ of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

The SDLP now finds its agenda set and the party divided by the slogans of its two competitors – a ‘united Ireland’ from Sinn Fein and, to a lesser extent, a ‘shared future’ from Alliance.

And Wilson is clear on where the open ground lies:

Only by investing in a forward- and outward-looking social democracy can the party establish a distinctive and unifying position. Alliance showed with its gains in the Assembly election that a progressive party can advance with a coherent message conveying integrity.

But liberal parties across Europe tend to command only 5%-10% of the vote, whereas social-democratic ones can surpass 20%, 30%, or even 40% at times. Alliance thus matches its potential, but the SDLP under-performs, partly because of its blindness to its potential secular-Protestant support.

Successful social-democratic parties have a core message of social inclusion: ‘Everyone on board’ is the slogan of the Norwegian party in the successful ‘red-red-green’ government there.

Northern Ireland has a huge problem of social marginalisation and only a party committed to social solidarity – including across the sectarian divide – can credibly claim that it can address it.

With all the other parties signed up to a right-wing (and economically ill-founded) ‘race to the bottom’ on corporation tax for the private sector, there is a big space for the SDLP if it supports solutions based on a strong and prosperous public realm.

Secondly, social-democratic parties believe that we are all, in the biblical phrase, ‘members one of another’. With growing disillusionment, reflected in plummeting turnout, with the sectarian policy stand-offs and inertia at Stormont – particularly over education – in the latest Assembly term, there is again a big space for the SDLP to offer a positive, alternative message in favour of a politics of the common good.

It can sponsor a political style in favour of progressive consensus and governance arrangements which sustain equality of citizenship, but favour collective commitment.

With devolution now a stable reality, the SDLP can climb out of the Hume trap on nationalism: in the spirit of the older socialist John Hewitt it can argue concretely for maximum collaboration with our fellow Irishmen and women in a spirit of reconciliation, as if we had a ‘united Ireland’, while simultaneously engaging to our benefit with the devolution and Left-Right divide that characterise contemporary UK politics – as well as, last but not least, taking part in the wider European debate about how we cope with the global economic and ecological crises that affect all our lives.


  • Comrade Stalin

    Some “lets get alonerist” people dont even recognise that they have done better out of sectarianism than those they disparage.


    Uniquely…and arrogantly they believe that their “righteousness” is more deserving of Executive seats than success and failure at the ballot box.

    Sigh, not this old whinge again. It’s not arrogance to point out the cold, nasty reality that Alliance are the only broadly acceptable candidate at present for the justice ministry. I’m sure one day that will change. And when that change happens it won’t be because Alliance became less righteous. It will happen when nationalists and unionists have learned to trust each other more – which is ironically an outworking of the the kind of do gooder mentality you frequently attack.

    In their view….unionists expressing their British identity are baaaaaaaaaaad. In their view…..nationalists expressing their Irish identity are baaaaaaaaaaaad.

    I must remind the people protesting against Orange marches or the flying of tricolours that they are part of your centrist do-gooder clique.

    but lets get alongerists expressing their (essentially British our wee country Norn Iron) identity are of course good.

    If I were less forgiving I might say that this sentence is code for “middle class Prods”.

    To be accused of believing in any form of apartheid (in Ireland where this week mourn for anti-apartheid spkesperson) is tacky and offensive but mostly laughable and harmless.
    I believe in a diverse society.

    Almost every contribution you make attacks anyone who puts forward any kind of argument promoting diversity and tolerance as some sort of do-gooder.

  • It seems to me from afar that neither the SDLP nor the UUP have a clear message. They can only look forward to continuing decline.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I honestly believe that the Alliance paint the most depressing picture of this……..em……..”country.”

    I haven’t seen a contribution to this particular discussion from Alliance yet, but you’ll have to forgive me if the scenes broadcast from East Belfast this week – and the attendant followup from our politicians – doesn’t have me all beaming like a feckin big ray of sunshine.

    Lets get to the point here. The view is that if you want to have a strong expression of your national identity, you are by definition sectarian.

    You’re replying to my contribution here but I’ve no idea where you got the impression that I was advocating anything of the sort.

    Basically you have Rule 21 or you have no nationalism and there is nothing in between. Such lack of imagination has been the reason why the Alliance vision of this “country” has being continually rejected by the public.

    I am not sure where you’re getting this from either.

    I dont feel the need to criticize unionsits for being unionists. That is a position that I have respect for. I disagree with it but I want to live in a society where unionists feel confident in expressing their unionism. I want to be able to argue with and disagree with them and to be able to do that without fighting with them. The Alliance view is that in order to have peace, you have to shut up. You have to put all of that nasty national identity you feel to the back fo your mind and be bland and “Alliance” like.

    I’m not trying to suggest that there should be some sort of police state where all expressions of identity that deviate from some sort of fluffy centre should be extinguished. That was never the Alliance perspective as far as I know either, although I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that people in Alliance mostly regard waving flags and singing nationalistic songs to be distasteful. Most people throughout the UK and Ireland regard such things as generally distasteful as well. That is not to say that they want to extinguish expressions of national identity – but I appreciate that the distinction involves nuances are lost on some.

    The Alliance Party like Mr WIlson see nationalism some sort of prison (“the Hume Trap”, we are told). They believe they are enlightened. They are not.

    Speaking personally, I don’t see nationalism (the dictionary word) as something that is in any way useful or beneficial. It is ultimately a kind of patriotism; the belief in the primacy of your country because you were born in it.

    A national identity is important. People by and large want to have it and want to be able to express it.

    Depends on what that means. The BNP have different ideas about what it means to express nationalism than (say) Gordon Brown did when he suggested that there should be a GB national public holiday.

    It is impossible to unify unionism and nationalism, and insofar as that is the case, it is imposible to unify unionists and nationalists on this issue.

    I do not accept that at all.

    It is however, perfectly reasonable to expect that these people can live togetehr and most of them do.

    In an uneasy way. In any places I’ve worked in, there is a ban on discussing politics in the workplace. I am quite sure that if this ban was not in place, there would be all kinds of awkwardness as people debated what was happening in East Belfast this week. We have not solved the problem – we have merely parked it. I hope you recognize that.

    I’ve never thrown a stone at a unionist. I’ve never felt the need to put a wall between a unionist and myself. I have worked with unionists, lived next door to unionists, had a pint with unionists, made friends with unionists and all the while had many arguments with them over there unionism, usually between pints.

    Likewise, more so recently. A Good Thing.

    Thats real getting along. A society that embraces difference rather rushing to find the lowest common denominator.

    We don’t need to go to the lowest common denominator. We need to find ways to extend the kind of polite disagreement that flows from mutual respect to be extended beyond the middle class workplaces and dinner parties, into the way we conduct our politics, make decisions and all the rest.

    I laughed at FJH’s story about the integrated school. What he did was expose them. And this view that you can be proudly and vocally nationlist or peaceful and that the two are mutually exclusive, needs to be exposed for the corrupt and ideolically bankrupt drivel that it is.

    I’m glad you think that way. You’re ready to accept an Orange Order march past your house without protesting it then ? Do you think FJH is ? You reckon the unionists are ready to start being enthusiastic about a sporting organization that names its clubs after INLA killers ? I’ll give it to you, you’re definitely more optimistic than I am.

    Insofar as politics is concerned, the ultimate expression of your national identity is the aspiration for national soveriegnty. That is why you need nationalist parties. That is why the SDLP need to remain a nationalist party.

    John Hume was the one who said “you can’t eat a flag”. Yet here you are talking about how the issues of that flag must be the SDLP’s foremost priority. It all sounds very confused to me.

  • FuturePhysicist

    joeCanuck (profile) says: 26 June 2011 at 8:23 pm

    It seems to me from afar that neither the SDLP nor the UUP have a clear message. They can only look forward to continuing decline.

    Democracy doesn’t follow these strange rules you will find, this is simply an ad hominum arguement. Dictatorships do though, but alas neither of us are an authority in such matters I should hope.

  • In Norn Iron unionists are supposed to kicking the bajasus out of nationalists. And nationalists kicking the bajasus out unionists.
    And lrts get alongerism kicks the bajasus out of both.
    Nobody kicks the bajasus out of lets get alongerism.

    Which is exactly how they like it. Their righteousness is a shield which allows fake lets get alongerists (those who merely adapt the rhetoric of the “middle ground” to further their own bigoted agenda).

    Of course we are not supposed to say that they are exactly like the rest of us.
    The fakes have thrived because the rest of us have given them a bye ball. The nationalsts and unionists have concentrated fire on each other to the extent that the bigots in the middle ground have been allowed to expand.

    To his immense credit, Comrade Stalin plays “hardball”. He makes no pretence to the contrary.
    Alliance will of course falter. Thats inevitable.
    They have actually (even without my “this old whinge” again) been in better position than this before.

    In 1973 Assembly Elections they took 66,000 votes and 8 seats from 78. A month previously 94,000 people voted for them.
    So the present 51,000 (8 seats from 108) is not the stunning success they seem to think.
    The two Executive seats (borne we are told of APs acceptabilty…..that would be acceptability to the DUP and SF) is not exactly new either. Back in the day…we had the even older whinge of AP people picking up a disproportionate share of quango positions.
    Justified because of the peculiar theocracy of lets get alongerists that the Alliance Party deserves this because they are “better” than the rest of us.
    “Lets get alongerists”….the fake ones…..have peddled this lie for so long that it has become part of the “accepted truths” of our situation.

    Its time it was challenged.

  • FuturePhysicist ,

    I agree that you never can tell in a democracy. But once great and dominant parties are occasionally wiped off the electoral map. I was just looking at the trends.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Insofar as politics is concerned, the ultimate expression of your national identity is the aspiration for national soveriegnty. That is why you need nationalist parties. That is why the SDLP need to remain a nationalist party.

    John Hume was the one who said “you can’t eat a flag”. Yet here you are talking about how the issues of that flag must be the SDLP’s foremost priority. It all sounds very confused to me.

    The “politics of nations” never goes away, as I’ve said before… Soverign Debt, Migration (both Im- and Em-), Defence, Trade and International Policy … the Hiberno-British constitutional question of the region aside (which I will come to), there is the independence of a nation being held to randsom by international commody trade, and/or bondholders as well as terrorism and factions within.

    You look at Greece and the national and the social question have become one in the same. The Republic may head that way and that will be a contagin that will hurt the UK economy too, which hurts the Republic again and so on. Ultimately Northern Ireland getting a lot less, with less say in the matter.

    These concerns and the knockon effects austerity measures have caused to society at large because of them does cause anyone to ask how our social problems can possibly be mitigated from our nations’ problems.

  • Damian O’Loan

    There is no national sovereignty without economic sovereignty. That’s surely the lesson the South has learned a decade too late. But there can be no economic sovereignty on a national basis in the face of globalised business.

    Nor can there be social democracy without economic sovereignty.

    It’s entirely contradictory to be a nationalist social-democratic party in the 21st century.

  • otto

    Well said Damien,

    I think that’s the point. Globalisation might be international but it’s experienced locally. It isn’t elitist or clever to recognize that as we get more mobile we need effective international institutions to work across borders globally and effective local institutions to make increasing diversity work at home.

    Educate together in the south is about making Irish society stronger by educating the new Irish and the traditionally marginalised together with the kids of the settled indigenous majority. Integrated education in the north is exactly the same (Irish) project. It’s not a British/Unionist ruse to lure nationalists away from their rightful claim to self-determination and it’s cynical to pretend it is.

    The more globalised we become the more this matters and continuing SDLP’s defence for segregation is only going to seem increasingly reactionary.

    NI boasts the first Chinese born person elected to a European legislature yet we’re still not educating our own kids in the same schools. That can’t be right but maybe we still don’t all consider them “our” kids.

    Everyone can see the efforts the SDLP are making to build representation for the Polish community in Northern Ireland but (sadly) when you look at the views expressed here you have to ask if it’s an effort to co-opt catholic immigrants to the SDLP view of the world rather than an unconditional outreach to prevent marginalisation.

    “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

    Who’s carefully fostering differences now?

  • “Alliance showed with its gains in the Assembly election that a progressive party can advance with a coherent message conveying integrity.” .. Robin Wilson

    It does provide useful cover for the OFMDFM dictatorship, a veneer of moderation.

    Patsy McGlone gave the SDLP a little more macho quality during the course of the PAC session last July but he (or an associate) has just let himself down badly:

    “Mr McGlone asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister when Sir Jon Shortridge’s report on NI Water will be published.

    (AQW 805/11-15)

    Mr P Robinson and Mr M McGuinness: Sir Jon Shortridge was not reporting on NI Water.”

  • FuturePhysicist

    It’s entirely contradictory to be a nationalist social-democratic party in the 21st century.

    I firmly disagree – Yugoslavia – Socialism’s only real victory over nationalism is broken up. USSR, China, Cuba, North Korea forced single identity nationalism on its people. Tito embraced the diversity of nationalism, and this was not a real democracy either.

    Secondly, you’ve failed to show how any of these social democratic parties are any less nationalistic than say the SDLP or the Flemish and Walloon Social Democrats: other than perhaps the odd gesture of floccipaucinihilipilification to “cultural nationalism” these “national” social democratic parties use the “our nation” in their native tongue often as much as the SDLP use Ireland with or without the word Northern attached to it.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Found this interesting…

    “Today, with all the serious and hard-to-solve challenges that are facing the European economy (particularly with regard to the ageing population and the loss of competitiveness), there is a broad consensus on how to overcome these problems. The real problem therefore should be sought elsewhere: in the existence of irreconcilable understandings of how we got into the euro crisis and, in consequence, how we should get out of it. For some, led by Germany, we are facing a crisis born of the fiscal irresponsibility of some member states. The solution therefore, the thinking goes, is for those states to simply comply with the austerity measures that were in force and which have now been strengthened. The solution is presented hand-in-hand with moralizing and condescending preaching as if the deficit or surplus of a country reflected the moral superiority or inferiority of a whole group of human beings. Many would like a two-speed Europe, not based on merit, but rather on cultural and religious stereotypes: in first class would be the virtuous savers who practice the Protestant faith; in the second, the profligate Catholics who cannot be trusted and who have to be kept in line, or, if it comes down to it, kicked out into the street.