With 14 seats in a 108 multi-party Assembly elected by STV, the SDLP still has a viable future.
THE POLITICAL CONTEXT
The cliché goes that the SDLP’s mission is over, now that equality and power sharing have been achieved. It has also been argued that Trimble and Mallon let down the new consensus in the early 2000s when they failed to come together to call for the suspension of Sinn Fein from the Executive over the IRA’s failure to disarm within a projected timetable. That was asking a lot of fragile new relationships and the risk to the ceasefire was judged to be unacceptably high. Today, we have achieved a sort of stability but stability amounting to virtual paralysis, if the goal is to achieve a society at ease with itself. Breakout is needed from the present political deadlock. The system exaggerates rather than institutionalises sectarianism. Northern Ireland politics is claustrophobic, introverted and still dominated by fear and distrust of the other. It needs to be opened up and made more accountable to the increasingly disenchanted people. This in itself would be a revolution. Our politics have been traditionally based on the secrecy and conspiracy of the cell or the lodge, characteristics which are still reflected in the democratic centralism of the main parties. Politics has not yet adjusted to a parliamentary system and the requirements of genuine power sharing in government. It is ironic that the present system appears every bit as monolithic as the old Unionist single party rule, (but then again, look what happened to that).
Competition for the sectional vote has become more intense as turnout falls, with the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists coming off worse. The penny ought to have dropped by now that a new strategy is needed. That strategy is about building common ground for politics to operate constructively, which no single party can achieve in isolation. It cannot be accomplished by adjusting the structures alone. It requires political will, spurred by the prospect of political gain.
It should be recognised that the momentum of cross community cooperation needs to increase significantly for power sharing to work well. Parties should develop ad hoc alliances and voting pacts in the Assembly. They have of course cooperated to some extent, but back to back. There are gains to be made by turning face to face. Parties need to learn to govern better in the public interest rather than act as mere harvesters of the sectarian vote and local ombudsmen, as if their role on government did not exist.
The SDLP should commission an unsparing analysis of its position in the nationalist community and society as a whole. Why has Sinn Fein continued to grow? Why has Unionism grown more truculent and defensive? What can the SDLP do to bring about change? Nobody should exaggerate the difficulties of mobilising the mass ranks of the disenchanted who think of politics as caught in a sectarian vice, but potentially there is a big amorphous constituency out there, many of whom wouldn’t be seen dead voting for the two political poles. They need to be addressed directly from the vantage point of enlightened nationalism.
While waiting for such an analysis to refine the arguments and supply detail, the following would seem to be the core of a viable strategy. Like all modern parties, strategy needs to be pursued consistently under strong leadership and with whole hearted consent.
It should not be assumed however that any strategy is a magic bullet. This is one for the long haul. It recognises that the SDLP is unlikely to regain its position as the leading party of traditional nationalism. Instead and over time, by building up ad hoc partnerships for specific measures and seeking political cooperation more actively, it could become the creator of a New Majority.
The growing abstention from voting and repeated public opinion polling suggests there is a potential constituency for a centre left party with the fairly solid community base that the SDLP still retains, if only just; but there may not be much time before it erodes to the point of no return. The conservative tendency in the party is too small a base for expansion and is unlikely to leave, if handled with due respect.
An Agreed Ireland will remain the essential rubric. But the SDLP should act in the belief that the militant local nationalisms are outmoded in modern Ireland and the UK. The party should associate itself warmly with the Republic’s reconciliation with Britain. This an age for forging links not breaking them. The SDLP cannot out-green Sinn Fein and does not need to. It should cease to foster an impression of the SDLP as a Sinn Fein mini-me on the issue of unity. It should insist that the IRA delayed rather than achieved “freedom and equality” and gained the political initiative due to unionist intransigence and to encourage IRA disarmament. Sinn Fein millenarianism relies on an eventual nationalist majority and therefore stokes unionist insecurities, to the detriment of the present self-evident need for greater community cohesion. This has been a major failure of power sharing so far and needs to be addressed with unambiguous clarity. At the same time the momentum of Sinn Fein since at least 1998 has unsettled unionists and increased their disenchantment with power sharing. The SDLP can begin to reverse that trend.
The SDLP should differentiate more strongly from Sinn Fein. It should concentrate on taking responsibility, what we can do to help ourselves, rather than the easy populism of blaming the national governments. It should embrace the logic of self-determination. This means at present prioritising a shared future in the North over a vision of impending unity and involves taking a certain political risk.. Drawing on and developing its historic contribution to achieving equality and power sharing, the SDLP should move vigorously and unapologetically towards championing economic development and the social developments in a shared future. At the same time, harmonisation of services north and south where appropriate should be identified in preparation for further development when austerity ends north and south.
Seeking new political partnerships it should plan a social integration route for Northern Ireland, identifying the steps which would appeal to and expand its constituency.
The designation blocs for the Assembly and the Executive should be replaced by a weighted majority and voluntary coalition respectively. This would not produce instant change but it would encourage greater political flexibility over government formation and stimulate ad hoc coalitions for particular policies.
The idea of quitting the Executive to form an Opposition (which Assembly rules do not encourage) should be resisted unless it rallies round demonstrably popular proposals which the main parties are resisting and other parties support. Why surrender the platform of a department and membership of the Executive which can be used to make an impact with voters?
In the meantime the size of the Assembly should not be reduced.
The development of greater collective responsibility in the Executive should be promoted.
The Justice Ministry should be rotated among the Executive parties on an agreed programme, for governing policing including its relationships with the National Crime Agency and an Garda Siochana, for the regulation of parades, and for dealing with the past.
The SDLP should champion a rigorous study for a new devolved tax and spend policy similar to the Calman and Smith commissions in Scotland and the Silk Commission in Wales. The party should acquire greater economic and social policy expertise to get on top of the arguments. It would be unwise to argue for devolution of tax powers in the medium term. Maintaining the block grant will be difficult enough and needs to be supported by increased efficiencies such as reducing the administrative overhead and double spends due to sectarian duplication.
Education reform at local and provincial level should become a priority, identifying sharing, leading to integration where viable.
The programme of school development involving closures, amalgamations and new builds should be revised to include an expansion of sharing and integration and the eventual end with consent of informal academic selection.
Power sharing government makes de- facto separate religious education redundant. A new system of school governance should be drawn up to replace the transferors system and separate Catholic schools. All schools should be able to become independent and chose their own ethos and academic character within common guidelines and inspection laid down by the Assembly.
On the Past, the virtual end of prosecutions should be recognised and welcomed. The HET should be revived in the form of a Historical Investigations Unit as described in Haass. Survivors should be helped on the basis of need. The legatees of the Troubles – the governments and their servants and the former paramilitaries – should be required give information on the basis of immunity in a process of information-gathering funded mainly by Westminster.
An Irish language policy should be put to unionists, drawing on the Scottish and Welsh experience and based on a rigorous assessment of demand and scope. Bilingualism for official documents for example seems an unnecessary expense. The final policy however should be presented as an Irish cultural article of faith and presented to unionists as an acid test of their goodwill.
A civic forum independently organised and chaired should be convened at least three times a year with the ability to form consultative citizen’s juries, with politicians also taking part. The Assembly should debate its recommendations with a view to adopting the best of them.
On the basis of these policies the SDLP should work with other parties to recommend cross community voting.
Unless a deliberate strategy for change with calculated cross community appeal is adopted, further decline is likely for the SDLP.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London