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

  • aquifer

    Simple. Make a joint decision to stay away from Ian Paisley’s funeral and see what flows from that.

    Dishonouring the ‘Big Man’ tradition in Irish Politics would be a useful corrective to blood and bombast.

  • I think its important to state that Sean Rogers may not have been “her” chosen successor. Rather he was the candidate chosen to replace “her”.
    I have of course no idea who Margaret Ritchie would have chosen as a successor but it might be reasonable to assume that she would have chosen the Downpatrick based candidate.

  • john

    Drat just when we all thought Ritchie had been put out to pasture in Westminster out of sight out of mind she decides no I can try and do a little bit more damage to the party

  • john

    Just to point out Fiefdoms have always been the SDLP problem. Too many looking after themselves and dont give a damn about the party.

  • Framer

    Anyone remember Stormont pre-1965? It is back to majoritarianism albeit with two parties splitting the spoils between each community.

    It is all we can ask for in a statelet forced into a political limbo. We are required only to spend London’s money, concentrate on our differing national aspirations/sectarianism and block each other’s ambitions.

    Why Stormont bothers meeting is beyond me.

  • son of sam

    Perhaps I am mistaken,but I sense that M/s O Connor is less critical of Sinn Fein than she used to be.Of course, if the S D L P periodically provide some useful ammunition,commentators such as she will gleefully use it to denigrate the party.Although Jude Collins would hardly agree,the tone of the political columnists in the Irish News is markedly moving away from anything praising the S D L P to varying degrees of support for their republican opponents.Jim Gibneys column is usually a party political for his party while Brian Feeney if not wholly supportive of S F is typically anti S D L P.Even Tom Kelly is liable to give his own party a “belt of the crozier”. One assumes that the hierarchy of his party will soon provide a clear focus on policies and refrain from the own goals so beloved of the media!

  • J Kelly

    Sam with big Al in the chair one shouldn’t assume anything

  • Son of Sam is only half right.
    As I observed the other day, DUP and Sinn Féin outvote UUP and SDLP……..but broader society including Journalism does not reflect this.
    The Doctors, Solicitors, Accountants, Senior Civil Servants, Business folks,Academics, Bankers do not reflect this.
    They have a choice. Get on board with the new regime or stay in the cold.
    While Gibney is clearly SF orientated, Ive always taken Feeney and O’Connor to be fairly mainstream nationalist. Kelly is SDLP orientated. I dont know if hes actually a member.His posts tend to reflect debate within SDLP.

    Certainly other media figures are falling over themselves to suck up to SF (and DUP)

    But nationalism itself has drifted from SDLP to SF and he Irish News, always a SDLP backer needs to reflect that change..
    Feeney and O’Connor certainly have drifted and SDLP “competence” is a factor.
    Although I joined SDLP in September last year I did not join because the SDLPis competent. Rather I joined because of its incompetence and dysfunctional nature.

    Whle its certainly legitimate for SDLPs opponents to pick at divisions, splits and incompetence…….including those that dont actually exist…..(hey its politics)
    supporters of SDLp in the media and on blogs should not paper over divisions which actually do exist.

    The next few months will see a very honest debate..Its not all bad.
    While the headline in this thread is nice and catchy……and even “balanced” there is as yet no parity of incompetence between SDLP and UUP.
    We are bad……but not quite that bad.

  • FuturePhysicist

    almost all it’s political ambition is centered on a southward push for power.

    ‘Almost all “its” political ambition’ that should be or perhaps ‘our’ if you transliterate the Party’s name back to “Ourselves”. (irony)

    Probably the only thing worth noticing amongst this usual dribble.

    The fact of the matter is that “interesting” doesn’t matter to the voters … if they wanted the full TV viewing political soap opera they’d elect the likes of Eammon McCann, Harry Hamilton, Pat Cox, Dawn Purvis and Jim Allister, oh wait.

    Perhaps that the argument for a United Ireland, we’d remove a substantial amount of your boring politicians, keep the likes of Sammy Wilson, Basil McCrea, Barry McElduff, Conal McDevitt and then we’d throw the likes of Ming Flannighan, Willie O’Dea, and I guess Gerry Adams and the rest in for free? And since the economy isn’t great, and a substantial amount don’t even want to be there these politicians are always hostile and defensive.

    None of this “Right Honorable Gentleman and or Lady stuff” … just good ol’ drama.

  • FuturePhysicist

    and a substantial amount don’t even want to be there

    I don’t just mean Unionists and protesting Alliance members. 😉

  • caseydog

    It’s interesting that no one has thought to comment on the fact that the SDLP chose a Kilkeel grammar school principal to succeed Richie….a grammar school that has set it’s face against amalgamation with a very small Kilkeel secondary school, St Columbans,, that is struggling to survive and to educate a few hundred generally disadvantaged children that the grammar school refuses to allow through it’s doors.

  • Caseydog, Kilkeel is the same as every other urban centre across the north. It has too many schools, and not enough pupils, meaning that amalgamations are inevitable. They will happen, but in most places the details have yet to be finalised. Monday’s announcement may make things clearer, but you are wrong to suggest that Kilkeel will be some sort of special case.

  • alex gray

    Problem is Tom Elliott has too many scripts – conservative link, DUP partnership, opposition. He’s a political cameleon – his colour changes to suit the background he’s in. With Basil he’s Leader of the Opposition. With David he’s DUP lite. With Owen he’s Conservative and Unionist Leader. How many policy task forces have you set up, Tom ? Why should we belive David McNarry’s DUP partnership group was the only one ? Is there one with an opposition agenda as well ? That would explain Basil’s reaction.

  • Sean Og

    Has Ritchie said when she will step down from the Assembly? She’s hanging around now like a bad smell and damaging her party again.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Anyway, what use is a script anyway … financial markets move so fast one can only provide perturbative analysis.