After #GE2015ni… The SDLP begins breaking tough…

The SDLP’s post election profile rarely makes good reading for party loyalists, but this year is at least a partial exception.

Alasdair McDonnell may not have turned round the decline the party has  suffered under its two previous leaders, but like a football team with very few opportunities to score, he has at least managed to successfully recycle the ball.

In Foyle an increase in the Durkan vote augurs well for Assembly team safety. In South Down, Margaret Ritchie’s 6.2% decline indicates little more than moderate Unionists no longer worry about her losing to Sinn Fein.

In South Belfast McDonnell had the toughest fight of the three to resist a huge political squeeze from several directions. But the seat is still the SDLP’s, so they get to fight another day.

If they didn’t score directly, it was their nationalist opponents who lost their seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone, and largely through the SDLP’s refusal to sign up to what would have been widely interpreted as a sectarian pact.

For a party that has seemed at times to have been afraid of its own shadow, sticking to principles and in the process dispensing damage to an opponent counts as a win.

McDonnell has also created a process for bringing in and, crucially, testing new political talent.

Daniel McCrossan will be a popular and capable replacement for Joe Byrne in West Tyrone whilst in Newry and South Armagh Justin McNulty has improved on what was dropping vote share for Dominic Bradley in 2010.

In Lagan Valley and Strangford where there are no current SDLP seats, there were modest bounces for the SDLP, at the expense of Sinn Fein. But after that, the picture gets much bleaker, not least in McDonnell’s native Co Antrim.

Of most concern is the continuing decline in four constituencies where the party still holds Assembly seats.  East Londonderry (-3.2%), Upper Bann (-3.8%) Belfast West (-6.5%) and Belfast North (-4.1%).

The drops aren’t necessarily fatal (differential turnouts in Assembly and Westminster elections are to be expected). But read against rises elsewhere they usefully demark areas where renewal is taking place, and where it clearly isn’t.

Even the ingenue John Coyle, under extreme pressure from a much larger Sinn Fein machine in Fermanagh South Tyrone, performed better than these four incumbents, losing just 2.3% of the vote last Thursday.

Notionally there are two SDLPs. One has begun to halt its regression. The other, consisting of senior and still hugely influential figures within the party, still bumbles downward in the same way they have throughout the era of decline.

Interestingly some of those in this faltering wing of the party were amongst the first to talk about a change of leadership. It’s a conversation prompted by McDonnell’s own announcement that he will be choosing Westminster over Stormont.

Laying aside the implausibility of an Irish nationalist party led from London, no one believes that the crux of  political struggle in Northern Ireland is anywhere but Stormont. Leadership from Westminster is a near impossibility.

In the next week the party will face important decisions. As Tony Blair put it to Labour on Sunday, “choosing a new leader is important, but not nearly as important as choosing direction.”

McDonnell’s achievement has been to bring in fresh legs, keep recycling the ball, facing down an opponent the party once thought invincible and, as Cllr Claire Hanna suggested on election night, enabling his party to see them ‘fray at the edges’.

Modest enough, and certainly no substitute for the convincing political narrative that the party really needs for a real and sustainable revival. Hard work alone is certainly not enough. But nor should it be dismissed as nothing.

If Dr McDonnell has shown his party anything it is that just laying around in a political bath chair with one foot firmly committed to the grave is not the only option.

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