UUP and the SDLP: Two parties in search of a script?

Very good column from Fionnuala O’Connor on Tuesday re what what’s happening to two parties in continuing decline. She starts with the semi public spat between Margaret Ritchie and her chosen successor, the retired school head, Sean Rogers:

Surely between them a keen new player and a former leader could have avoided such a petty row, or at least kept the daylight from it. It’s as if they don’t realise the SDLP image has taken a battering. The old rules do not only not work, it sounds as though few remember what they are.

She goes on to mine the rich fields of the UUP for further evidence that small parties tear each other apart. It may not of course be that it is the size that matters.

The lack of ambition expressed by both party leaders is more likely the problem. What else there to do with all that competitive instinct than fall on each other, if you are not on a long journey.

I’ve argued in the past that Sinn Fein does not have a credible strategy for achieving a united Ireland, but it enables its followers to believe it has through the creation of iterative targets; almost all it’s political ambition is centered on a southward push for power.

The DUP has less of a pallet to play with, but it is busy ripping all the good stuff it can conveniently lay its hands on from the Ulster Unionists, even to the extent of taking the high ground over Unionism’s previous cack-handed dealing with the GAA.

The narrative is clear, it’s ‘we are for ALL the people in Northern Ireland’. Like Sinn Fein, the goal may be a very long way off, occasionally disrupted by their own senior colleagues, but the story’s a enough to keep people interested and listening.

In the cases of the two larger junior parties there is a sense of a journey being undertaken that people can buy into that’s almost entirely missing in the case of the UUs and the SDLP. That’s bolstered by the understated but nevertheless harsh reality that these two parties currently have a monopoly power under the St Andrews Agreement.

Whatever the merits or demerits of ‘going into opposition’, it is also hard for the junior parties to lay out a credible alternative to what passes for mainstream politics in Northern Ireland whilst they are inside government.

It’s perhaps one reason why some very senior political correspondents seem to resent any time they are forced to spend reporting on what they view as junior dogsbodies. Bluntly, it’s pretty thin gruel to sup on, and much of it of little account within the larger picture of Northern Irish politics.

About four years ago, on the BBC Analysis programme, Danny Fickelstein reflected on his time as an advisor to William Hague in the wake of the Tories’ 1997 spanking at the polls by New Labour:

….one of the reasons the media weren’t interested in us is that we were literally boring. We were what would be boring on the screen. We were what would be boring in a book and naturally it was also boring in a newspaper article.

And William Hague was saying, “Do we want to have a ballot on whether the Conservative Party supports the Euro? It’s a bit of a risk.”

And I said, “If you take the storybook seriously, yes you should have a ballot because the only way that people will know who you are is through the transformation that takes place in your character through a real narrative, going from a situation where the party is disunited, going through the challenge of an election, and ending with a united party, with the party being transformed in between.”

Obviously you don’t decide serious matters of national policy purely because they represent a film script, but you do have to have a sense of a character being transformed by the things that he does as well as an explanation of what you stand for through theories and things like that.[emphasis added]

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

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