SDLP “A party not sure of where it is going or who it wants to take with it…”

When ‘talking’ by email last night, a friend who is far from unsympathetic to the SDLP remarked “you know you’ve a problem in politics and life when its your own efforts that afflict you most!” Alasdair McDonnell has just had a fortnight from hell, and for the most part the hell his party has just gone through was entirely of its own making.

In short, someone on McDonnell’s front bench was trying to be just a little too clever with a piece legislation that turned out to have a very powerful (and for the SDLP, a very nasty) emotional edge to it. McDonnell came in with a reputation as a bruiser who worked from his gut, but this entreprise has no sign of gut or brain.

As Deirdre Heenan pointed out on The View last night, they tried to steer between the two “and found themselves indecisive, floundering all over the place… and what they tried to do in their later debates was to try to turn this into a technical issue, whereas people at home and the public want to know, do you believe there is a moral issue at stake here.”

Earlier in Gareth Gordon’s video piece, Fionnuala O’Connor noted…

When Seamus Mallon and Brid Rogers weighed in it made things pretty much impossible for Alasdair McDonnell who had looked as though he was beginning to get his feet steady on the ground and get a grip of things and but in in recent weeks again we have this spectacle of and the SDLP beginning to eat itself.

You can judge the degree of drift in the party by the fact that politicians thirteen years out of active politics can have such a direct effect on the politicians of now. Certainly direct comparisons with the UUP are tempting, but somewhat misleading.

Both major parties are relying on the prospect that their two minor counterparts will slowly wither on the vine. But in the case of the DUP they have made a bolder pitch for the UUP’s working class base, and the Alliance is hoovering up the rest.

The SDLP is under much less pressure, with SF content (for now) to leave the northern project on auto pilot, and Alliance struggling to get any kind of toe hold in majority Catholic areas.

That’s a situation that led to Patrick Murphy’s remark that the SDLP was more a comfort zone than a political party just before Big Al came to power.

And yet this debacle – amateur, fumbling and avoidable as it was – comes at a time when the party looks far from finished out in the country. The conversation rate to SF has all but stopped. The Mid Ulster by election saw a net gain in its vote even with a large drop in turnout.

If the party had roused itself to appoint a head of communications some of this trouble might have been anticipated.

Two years after dropping the last guy (months before that heims of an inaugural speech) there is no one managing key relationships with the press or, just as importantly, selling good news.

No other party I can think of would get such a serious bump in ratings in two successive IPSOS/MORI BBCNI polls (one for Spotlight here and Nolan here courtesy of MJH) and not say a word about, internally or externally.

If the party is not such a comfort zone now, then McDonnell should use the discomfiture of some of his misfiring frontbenchers to din a little reality in on their heads. And maybe do something to hook in the wise heads to lend a little authority (rather than substract it) to the party every now and then.

If the SDLP had a bad week, Sinn Fein fared only a marginally better. It seems it was they who pulled their man first out last night’s The View leaving the SDLP with a single interrogative interview on the troubles within the SDLP rather than issues underlying the legislation and no SF adversary to put on the back foot.

If the bill goes through on Monday (and despite assurances the SDLP whip will be solid, we cannot discount slippage), an important point of principle will have been lost. One which, despite the SDLP’s cack-handedness, will continue to put limits on SF’s majority interest in Northern Irish nationalism.

More worrying for them Jim Allister has drafted a complex (but narrow) piece legislation you can be sure that the party’s adversaries in Dublin will be mulling over with great interest. This issue may be ending for the SDLP, but it may only just be starting in earnest for a southern Sinn Fein that is finding its northern past is sucking it back out of the main drag of the southern discourse.

If the SDLP has a future, it has to learn how to act like a political party rather than a predictable political subsidiary to its larger and better organised cousin. That means taking time to look at the larger game, deciding, as Gareth Gordon so directly puts it, “where it is going and who it wants to take with it…”

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