A strategy for the SDLP in the Assembly

With 14 seats in a 108 multi-party Assembly elected by STV, the SDLP still has a viable future.


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).

Belfast Lord Mayor & SDLP Councillor Nicola Mallon opens the SDLP Conference 2104. Ramada Hotel, Belfast.

Belfast Lord Mayor & SDLP Councillor Nicola Mallon opens the SDLP Conference 2104. Ramada Hotel, Belfast.

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.



20141114_212410111_iOSThe 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.

  • barnshee

    “In the meantime the size of the Assembly should not be reduced.”

    How long is the meantime?
    Reduction should be a priority

  • Croiteir

    They have jumped on the so called “integrated” education bandwagon, that will end badly when it smashes against the wall, coming up to Christ Mass and the turkeys have voted in support

  • Ernekid

    The Stoops need to drop McDonnell like a hot stone. I listened to his interview with Devenport on Inside Politics this morning. He sounded totally lack lustre, no vision,no strategy, no enthusiasm. When Devenport asked him key questions about the Party future McDonnell acted like Devenport was being impertinent to have the audacity to question him. McDonnell has an ego that is totally unwarranted, He’s a poor leader and an even poorer MP.

    I agree with you Brian on a lot of your article but with the current leadership its not going to happen. The SDLP was severely holed below the water in the early 2000s when Hume retired due to his failing health. The Party expected Hume to guide them through the early years of the Assembly before he passed the torch to anointed successor. When that became impossible, the SDLP lost its vision, shifting from weak leader to weak leader. Losing seats, support and policy to the Shinners. I think its far too late to salvage the Party. After 10 odd years of steady decline it can’t turn itself around. It’s become the political equivalent of HMV, People still like it for nostalgic reasons and they have great memories of it but the market has changed utterly and they’ve no reason to go there as there are better options.

    When McDonnell loses South Belfast to a Unionist Unity candidate and the party gives him the heave ho, I’m not sure if there’s anybody left in the Party who has the calibre to rebuild the Party and take on the leadership for the 2016 Assembly elections
    Colum Eastwood?, Mark H Durkan? Neither are great. Dolores Kelly would be a worse version of Margaret Ritchie and we all know how that ended.
    If its a 90 seat Assembly, as it should be as 108 seats is way too many for a place as small as Northern Ireland. I doubt they’ll make much on an impact.

    It’s a shame as I want to like the SDLP more I really do but the lack of leadership and vision makes it really hard. If I’m in South Belfast next May for the Election next year, I doubt I’ll give McDonnell a vote. I think I’ll give the Greens or Alliance a vote depending on their candidate. It’s a shame but I think the SDLP needs a good kick up the arse or it will die a death.

  • chrisjones2

    ….because if it is we will lose seats and our MLAs who are left will have to acually do some work

  • notimetoshine

    Really interesting article, but surely the only way for the SDLP to retain its relevance and indeed their legitimacy is to re!move themselves from the executive and move towards forming an opposition formal or otherwise. Remaining within the executive is political opportunism at its worst. You mention using an ministerial depart!ent as a platform, but surely this is not what a ministerial position is for? Using the executive to further party political goals is everything that is wrong with our gpvernment. Surely they should be there to govern and if they can’t do so effectively they shouldn’t be there. It is cynical opportunism.

    They have little to no influence with this executive, they would garner more influence and respect in effective opposition. However democratic deficit and political principles fall to the wayside in the face of party political opportunism. They are failing their electorate while in that shambles of an executive.

  • Bryan Magee

    Very good to see SDLP coming stronger in favour of reforms to education and to politics. Alasdiar McDonnell did a very good interview on Inside Politics and on Sunday politics last week, positioning the party clearly.

    Also some very good new candidates coming through. As Alasdiar has pointed out the council elections have seen a lot of impressive new candidates and Nichola Mallon and Claire Hanna are just a couple of examples.

  • Neil

    The one thing I would say is that the man could do with being able to call a poor election result for what it is. Trying to sell the recent elections as succesful when by his own yard stick they were not belies his ability to bury his head in the sand. After Ritchie I can see how that skill was necessary, but just repeating the mantra “everything is great” when it’s not won’t actually help the SDLP’s fortunes. That said I reckon they’re bottoming out and they could see growth.

  • tmitch57

    Very interesting set of proposals, but unfortunately I think it is too late. The present situation results from a lack of any built-in incentive in the GFA for the voters to support moderate parties. The natural tendency for most voters in a deeply-divided society like NI is to vote for the extremists in the belief that they will do a better job of forcing concessions from the other side. John Alderdice of Alliance was very critical back in 1998 about the built-in sectarianism of the GFA, I thought at the time that he was being too critical as it merely reflected the realities of NI. But he was prophetic. But the main concern of everyone was to stop the war and get the terrorists to surrender their weapons. So, Dublin and London were supportive of this–in Dublin’s case because their Northern surrogate wrote much of the GFA. Unfortunately, nationalist voters then got in the habit of voting for Sinn Fein in the belief that this would cause moderation. How well that worked can be seen in Adams’s remarks in New York last week. Now, the best that the SDLP can do is to force a rewriting of the GFA to allow for an official opposition. To do that they’ll need the help of at least one other medium-sized party–either the UUP or Alliance. I suggest that the SDLP and Alliance sit down together and have a committee of constitutional experts draft legislation to allow for an official opposition within the present system. I think that the UUP is too timid and confused to really be the partner the SDLP needs, but that the Alliance can be that if it is approached correctly.

  • Croiteir

    In other words help the alliance up the same way they helped SF. Can see that happening

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    In Today’s Irish News -( page 5 )- the Deputy leader of the SDLP Dolores Kelly MLA has called on her party to leave the Executive-whilst the SDLP leader Jim Alasdair McDonnell has called on his party to stay in the executive- the SDLP is a house divided-

    Meanwhile Mairia Cahill give a speech to the party conference today-from dissident to stoop in a few months -is this the first x dissident leader to give a speech to the SDLP party Conference-

  • chrisjones2

    No Just the first SF Rape Victim

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    Chrisjones2- ” No “-

    A big word-who then was the first x dissident leader that give a speech to the SDLP conference if it was not Mairia-

  • Brian Walker

    From what I read about the SDLP Conference in other threads and elsewhere, I see little change. Little sign beyond platitudes that the party have the policies and approach that creates energy in the party and interest the public. The one decision that made a headline – no electoral pact with Sinn Fein –is brave enough but what else makes the SDLP stand
    out in the elections? Like this one, it’s mostly reaction to Sinn Fein and that only emphasises who is setting the agenda.

    Instead of trying to trying to impress with their interest in Dublin agendas which barely play in NI, the SDLP should link up far more with other Celtic parties and parts of Labour to argue strongly for the preservation of the
    Barnett formula , and workable welfare policy. Opposing the welfare deal
    between the DUP and Sinn Fein is opposition for opposition’s sake, without
    putting forward an alternative.

    To be fair, individual figures like Durkan jnr and the tireless Alex Attwood have things to say but they seem like isolated figures. The SDLP should also decide without fudge what their approach is to social integration as an aim. Does anybody know what it is?

    The party message as a whole is terribly weak. Unless it strengthens,
    the leadership issue won’t be solved.

  • Bryan Magee

    Attwood: SDLP leading the argument to stay in Europe.

    Cartwright: Social housing: SDLP want to unlock private capital via joint ventures

    Eastwood: SDLP want a better integrated education system

    Attwood – excellent as ever – on welfare reform: https://audioboom.com/boos/2652661-alex-attwood-on-welfare-reform