SDLP reminded of the real politics of #SpadBill by its own retired politicians…

So the SDLP will not now launch a petition of concern. Eight days ago, they were firmly set on taking down Jim Allister’s bill. The SDLP press office were briefing over the weekend that there would be no change.

So what happened (Alex Attwood’s TV meltdown seems not to have played a part)? Over the weekend Seamus Mallon, the party’s retired former First Minister brought some much needed perspective to the party:

Mr Mallon accused the SDLP of “putting two fingers up to the unionist community and the community at large”. He said the promotion of certain people to power in Stormont was “to negate any of the basic philosophies of the Good Friday Agreement”.

“I hope the party changes its mind and I will do my best to ensure that they do,” Mr Mallon said. “I know the mood and feeling in the community. In politics, when you are explaining, you are losing.”

That last is a reference to Ronald Reagan’s mid debate quip to Walter Mondale. And he was proven right in the end.  It indicates an over concern for process and an under concern for the feelings of the party’s own electorate.

Here’s the three point case to the SDLP for supporting Jim Allister’s bill I put together in March:

  1.  The bill is a direct response to the appointment of Mary McArdle who was convicted for her part in the brutal murder of the young Catholic teacher Mary Travers after Mass. This is an issue that more or less precisely divides the broad interests of the two Irish national parties.

  2. The airing of any such public argument would give the party an opportunity both to reconnect with the distinct interests and values of its base (civil rights, respect for victims and civil order), whilst demonstrating it retains a capacity to effect substantive change.

  3. By participating in one of the first transparently robust process of lawmaking, the party can signal its willingness to embrace controversy and deliver tough and fair-minded law in the  interest of all the people of Northern Ireland, not just those who vote for them.

As I’ve noted elsewhere the SDLP have taken wonkery to a fine art to the exclusion of politics. That’s just one difference between now and Hume’s day.

I defy any red blooded Sinn Fein activist not to be laughing secretly up their sleeves at this debacle. More troubling from a Stoop point of view, is they seem to have had no idea what was coming.

In rugby if you pull out of a tackle half way through, you stand a very good chance of doing yourself a serious injury. The SDLP are being taught a very hard existential lesson here.

In part that’s arisen from an embarrassing (and as it turns out completely unnecessary) confrontation with Ms Travers, but more tellingly, at the hands of a retired elder of the party. It’s a like a parent coming home after ten years to find the kids have run amok.

Politics is in part about offering fit solutions to real problems (that’s what policy is for guys, it’s not a virtue in and of itself), but also about telling a story that people want to be part of through the things you do, rather than the things you say.

Demonstrating that our democratic institutions can express compassion towards victims of terror is a compelling story. But it’s not a good story for you if in the end you are forced not to sit on yer hands by your visiting elderly relatives.

The kicker to the story is that the party has initially indicated it will not oppose the Spad Bill by calling for a Petition of Concern. It remains to be seen how it will vote when the bill comes back through the Assembly for the last time.

Memo to the micro processors inside the SDLP: If one independent MLA can put a whole party ‘in a difficult position’, you ain’t playing the game right…

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