Why the battle over the SDLP’s leadership is worth paying attention to…

So Seamus Mallon backs Colum Eastwood to be the next leader of the SDLP. That should throw a predatory cat or two amongst the political pigeons (although in fact it can’t have been that unexpected).

The SDLP leadership race has been quiet this time round. Of course that was also true at the beginning of the summer long contest for the leadership of the UK Labour party, and look how that hotted up towards the end.

Keeping things tamped down suits the incumbent Alasdair McDonnell. He’s made every effort to avoid a direct and open confrontation with the 32 year old from Derry. The first hustings only takes place this Thursday.

So far the only memorable line to emerge in this contest has come from Colum Eastwood’s cry to the heavens that he was “fed up with losing…”

Laudable (and understandable) sentiments for a party whose own private research tells it that it is viewed by potential new voters as being both out of touch and having a policy platform that differs little from Sinn Fein’s.

It begs a couple of questions:

  • Is Colum’s a sentiment that is shared broadly within the party?
  • And what exactly is the party prepared to do to change matters?

Many mainstream opinion formers have long since given up on the two former establishment parties believing their defenestration in the early naughties was both definitive and irreversible.

And yet Mike Nesbitt’s albeit modest revival of the UUP continues. He’s now using credible position (as opposed to traditional sound and fury) to build strength and add pressure on the current DUP leadership.

Nationalist politics too may be shifting. In the south (where they have deployed most of their talent) Sinn Fein faces significant reversals in sentiment particularly amongst younger people.

The inevitability myth which has sustained its growth for so long will be severely tested in the upcoming election as a plethora of parties and independents on a fragmenting Irish left battle it out for a finite number of voters.

As Derek Mooney notes “politics today is much more questioning and technicoloured now than it was in the days of the black and white western“. Less true of Northern Ireland than many other places, but it still holds.

Some damage has been self inflicted, but real political competition is a far larger factor. The political attacks by Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin undermine the odd idea that attacking Sinn Fein only increases its electoral appeal.

That stultifying orthodoxy still predominates both within and outwith the SDLP in Northern Ireland. As a result, northern nationalism has fallen into a deep and complacent slumber.

One of the few breakout moments in Alasdair McDonnell’s leadership was when he delivered a few harsh truths to his rivals to power. But they have remained outbreaks rather than part of a sustained campaign.

There is a case to be made for the modest progress that Big Al has made in parts. It is also true that many of those pushing for change in the party are just keen to get rid of Alasdair rather than grasp the chance.

McDonnell’s plodding style has not done the party anything like the sort of damage for which his many of his own internal critics have been guilty. But nor has he affected the measureable turnarounds he once promised.

Things are changing despite the restricting reflexes of the established media. This year at Freshers Week in Queens University Belfast – not for the first time – Fianna Fail out recruited all other nationalist parties.

That’s indicative, I suspect, of an impatience with the politics of buggeration which has jammed delivery at Stormont. Perhaps the younger generation is ready to move on to other ‘greener’ post conflict pastures?

The SDLP must ask itself if it is willing to do what’s needed to represent a new wave of young nationalists who see the Belfast Agreement – embedded in the Irish Constitution – as the bedrock of their all island aspirations?

In this context, ‘give me just a little more time’, or ‘move over, it’s Derry’s turn’ may not be enough. Or as Tom Kelly once memorably put it, “fortune favours the brave rather than the bewildered”.

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  • Nicholas Whyte

    the modest progress that Big Al has made in parts

    What progress is that then? Because all I see when I look at the figures is that the party’s three worst results since February 1974 were the European election last year, the Westminster election this year, and the local elections last year…

  • mickfealty

    On a long downward trend, there were some modest ups Nicholas (see my post Westminster analysis: http://goo.gl/37E2zt).

    I recall our former colleague Mark McGregor producing a couple of charts which suggested the decline of the UUP and the SDLP was so synchronised that you could argue that no individual leader would have arrested it.

    In the same way, it may be that Alasdair is leader at a point when the SDLP is at a point in the cycle where (without some future disruption) it simply won’t get much lower, and the stress may be shifted across to SF?

    He certainly has had little to do with the growth in Derry, which is atypical of the party in general and which we can date to Mark Durkan’s 2005 Westminster election.

    By none of which do I mean to suggest that the SDLP will avoid damage in the future. Nationalists are opting out of nationalism too, as the emergence of candidates like Emmet McDonough Brown and Nuala McAllister indicate.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    As I said at the time, I thought your post-election analysis was astonishingly starry-eyed! The Foyle uptick was the return of votes previously borrowed by Eamonn McCann; the squeeze is on everywhere else. Your OP did seem to give Big Al the credit for Durkan’s very modest success!

    We’ve discussed here before the phenomenon of the Nationalist vote sliding overall, even though perceived Catholics make up a greater share of the electorate; my gut feeling is the biggest single factor there is that former SDLP voters simply aren’t bothering any more.

    The SDLP’s reluctance to confront SF must surely be a large part of this. It’s an approach that basically says “there’s no need to vote for us, you can vote for the real thing”. It will be interesting to see if Eastwood (or any other candidate) can shift the needle on the party’s own rhetoric.

  • David McCann

    Just touching on something Mick said there about Alliance and I have heard Gerry Lynch say similar things that the more Nationalist leaning voters who left APNI and went to SDLP in early 90s are now going back due to ppl like McDonough-Brown and McAllister.
    Anything in that?

  • Granni Trixie

    Two points on that. First factor in their age – not sure but I think they are in their twenties which would mean they are not emerging from political opinions a la 90s. Equally, one can only speculate that they are ‘nationalist’ in orientation. Or that they ever considered SDLP as representing their view but then opted for APNI.
    Personally speaking it’s a gut feeling or maybe because you are impressed by someone from a particular party you hear speaking which tells you “that’s for me”. Journalists love easy labels.

  • mickfealty

    Nicholas, I’m explicitly ruling out Foyle where the renewal of the party’s Assembly team was the doing of Mark Durkan. It was pretty much Durkan’s only success electorally, which emphasises the whole trench warfare mentality in lieu of any airborne campaign based on popular position or political ideas…

    I’ll take the hit on starry eyedness, but I think we shouldn’t get matters out of proportion. Big Al may only have slowed and managed the decline, but he certainly hasn’t crashed the plane.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Hmm, that’s over 20 years ago, so these are largely different voters!

    But I think Gerry is right in that Alliance is more appealing to that demographic than the SDLP are, in Greater Belfast at least. Elsewhere I think they’re just not voting.

  • chrisjones2

    The big problem the SDLP has is that it has no vision. What is the SDLP for? What can inspire voters to support it?

  • Nicholas Whyte

    When I raised the question of the party’s unique selling point a year ago, the only thing that was offered was “victims”. I leave it to others to decide if that has actually been a part of the SDLP’s core message since then.

  • Lord Coleraine

    Not just in Greater Belfast. I would point to the uptick in Alliance support (and continued fall in SDLP vote) in East Londonderry as an example of this also.

  • Lord Coleraine

    Yes the presumption that McDonough-Brown or McAllister are naturally SDLP/nationalists seems to be due to their community background rather than anything else. As I’ve always understood it, that’s the kind of compartmentalisation (is that a word?) that Alliance tries to do away with!

  • Lord Coleraine

    I shall take your questions in order: Don’t Know and Nothing (including a massive implosion of Sinn Fein).

  • That the SDLP were victims?

  • Granni Trixie

    I think Alliance recognises some people – and supporters – identify with nationalism and unionism but in addition aspires to represent a broader range of often complex identities, When filling in forms for instance I tend to write that I am “British-Irish” and certainly identify as Northrn Irish. When abroad however for communicatin purposes I say I’m Irish – doesn’t everybody?

  • Gingray

    “In the south (where they have deployed most of their talent) Sinn Fein faces significant reversals in sentiment particularly amongst younger people.”

    Mick, that would be from the poll that you incorrectly reported as a SF drop, rather than no change?


    In terms of younger people, 18-34 year olds make up apx 25% of voters (census figures with 55% turnout, compared to 65% for under 60s and 70% for over 60s). RedC poll was of 1000 people, 250 within that age range. Dropping from 1/3 to 1/5 is 85 to 50, a significant change perhaps, but only 3% of the sample.

    Am very interested in the stuff about Fianna Fail outrecruiting the other parties – anecdotal just? Its fairly grim that I see them as a white knight for reinvigorating nationalism parties up here.

    SDLP just appear to have too much baggage unfortunately, and no real sense of what they offer instead of SF (other than we did not support murder and destroying the place).

  • mickfealty

    More that they championed victims, I think…

  • mickfealty

    I was citing the long arc analysis of Richard Colwell, the MD of RED C… If you follow the link you’ll find more from Pete on that…

  • Lord Coleraine

    Oh yes of course people within Alliance and other “Other” parties will have the same complex identities as anyone else from (The) North(ern/ of) Ireland, but I haven’t seen much from either of the Councillors mentioned to indicate their preference. I would put it that, although they would obviously have their own opinions on their identity, they would be striving for the common good rather than putting themselves into a national identity box. That is the difference between the SDLP and Alliance and the difference between being nationalist or not. That’s how I read things anyway.

    I don’t think the SDLP of the 2010s could be said to represent the broader range of complex identities you speak of here, but this is because nationalism itself (from whichever country) doesn’t allow for such complexity.

  • mickfealty

    Notwithstanding Nicholas’ and Granni’s points to David, I’m reading it against recent (ie, over the last 20 years) patterns in elected reps for the Alliance party. It’s unhealthy to believe anyone is naturally one thing or another. (Which may be another contributory factor in the SDLP’s decline.)

  • Lord Coleraine

    Agreed 🙂

  • Gingray

    I have indeed Mick and I note the link to Colwells has been down from the day after it was produced, and that the analysis has gained no traction in the south.

    The RedC data is fairly decent, and across 13 polls from 26 October 2014 to 24 October 2015 they have robust data. But to support the view you have been promoting (the drop from 24% to 16%) does not hold water as they only hit it once, so those votes represent a small portion of the overall picture.

    2014/15 scores from RedC for SF: 18, 16, 16, 21, 18, 20, 22, 22, 23, 20, 22, 24, 21, 20, 21, 17, 22, 21, 18, 18, 16, 16.

    I imagine Colwell knew he had a captive audience for a story like this in certain markets, hence slugger producing two seperate blogs on it.

  • mickfealty

    24% as an outlier? Yep, I agree. He may be bolding that line up on other more detailed private polling they do besides.

  • chrisjones2

    Well that would be a start but too rooted in the past perhaps. They need a unifying vision. A United Ireland yes – but one founded on unity and shared values and equality – not bank robbery, dodgy diesel and murder might be a start.

    But the current leader will never dare do that. I don’t think he trusts that most Nationalist at heart are constitutional and want a state of laws not just cheap diesel and tobacco and a movement run by people who think murder was ok and still is for those who cross them

  • Ernekid

    The problem with the SDLP is that they don’t seem to have any strategy or vision. I’ve no idea what exactly they stand for. Where is their Cross Border strategy? Where is there vision for creating an all Ireland economy? What do they want the politics of this place to look like in 15 years time?

    Sinn Feins USP is that it’s an all Ireland Party with an all Ireland voice. From Bantry to Derry the party speaks in a single voice. What do the SDLP have to offer for Nationalists?
    Where is the SDLPs relationship with the SNP for instance? A fellow nationalist movement with a similar socio economic outlook? Why isn’t the SDLP taking a leaf out of Nicola Sturgeons book in articulating a positive view of nationalism that has engaged young people.

    Whining about what Sinn Fein may or have may not gotten up to during the troubles isn’t exactly a way to win new votes. The SDLP might have nice things written about them in Irish history textbooks but that won’t win them any seats.

  • Robin Keogh

    I pointed out the other day that even shinners at the time of the 24% score did not believe that figure and regarded it as a bit rogue.

  • Robin Keogh

    Which is probably why Eastwood adopted the fed up of losing angle. He might of thought it would hit a nerve across the party.

  • Croiteir

    What are the figures for FF out recruiting other parties in Queens – we have heard that one before – they never had any more than a dozen to my knowledge

  • Ernekid

    From my experience people would sign up to FF at Freshers Fair because they had the best free swag. They gave out posters of the proclamation one year.

  • Gingray

    I dont think he is the only one bolding up the numbers to suit the narrative here …

  • Croiteir

    Yep – those nationalists are criminals at heart

  • Feckitt

    I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully Colum Eastwood will do more to answer the points you make. Could the SDLP under the leadership of Alasdair McDonnell and Margaret Ritchie even be called a Nationalist party. All I see is a ‘Not Sinn Fein’ party.

  • Croiteir

    Not only that what did FF ever do on the ground. having an organisation in the elitist universities is well and good but have they ever written a letter to the DOE to fix a water pipe. (There again is there any organisation in UU? They are quiet on that one). Have they ever made any representation whatsoever for anyone in the north on anything local? They can organise as much as they want in a university but if they cannot put boots on the ground locally they are a non entity. All smoke and mirrors. No substance. Can anyone name any local spokesman except for jailbreaker McAllister?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Margaret Ritchie proposed a costed 25 year gradualism strategy for a United Ireland and it was attacked for being “too long”, but it’s to date one policy proposal that Sinn Féin have no repeated. There is no Sinn Féin White Paper on the Costs of Unity, and the SDLP have already beaten them to the punch on such a matter.

    As for the United Ireland with one voice, it is still a hard sell both North and South of this Island because the one voice sounds like the Fascism of Provo-speak, there are many voices in Ireland and a true republican accepts concepts like consent and dissent.

    Having an all-Ireland party is easy, a party is a small caveat in terms of an entire population, and pretending that a party of like-minded individuals creates unity outside of it is ridiculous. An Ireland where political diversity is treated like a threat to the “one voice” is in my opinion only validating its partition.


  • Colum Eastwood’s youthful political age of 32, as well being a native of Derry, are two factors that I have noticed being mentioned that will help him in his candidacy for leadership.

    It has reinforced to me what I see as little more than a difference of age and constituency as being largely all that distinguishes between Eastwood and Alasdair McDonnell.

    From my understanding of his recent leadership campaign launch speech, he is more strident in his support than McDonnell for a Stormont opposition, and he expressed a sliver of scepticism about devolving corporation tax. Other than these points, how does he notably differ from McDonnell on content?

    In light of this, I struggle to see Colum Eastwood’s candidacy as being much more than a mere face lift for the party, and a retreat to more comfortable electoral waters in the Maiden City.

  • Croiteir

    Can the party ever be a nationalist party now, I would doubt it. To me it is morphing into the NILP.

  • notimetoshine

    I should imagine writing a letter or making representations for someone is something they would be quite capable of doing. Frankly if they have a couple of people who have worked in customer services or complaints for a major company and some other people with professional experiences it should be quite easy. I’ve worked in complaints in various sectors I should imagine many of the problems would be reasonably simple to resolve.

    Oh and I don’t think Queens is elitist. I’m not sure where you get that one from.

    I’m not sure if FF will manage anything of any consequence, but I’ve been to a couple of their events up here and they did seem quite sincere and with a little promise.

  • Croiteir

    I am sure the mechanics of making representation is easily enough figured out, but have they done it? I would say no. If universities were not about creating an elite then there would be no need to have them. I also have attended one event – and the sincerity was plausible, but that was years ago in Downpatrick. Marie Osmond and Paper Roses

  • Gopher

    I’m pretty much convinced that electoral results in the 20th century in Northern Ireland were based on “imaginary” votes to be kind to all the parties involved. After that problem, then you have the fact that in 20 years alot of people die, if more die than new voters decide to vote for you your in trouble. The new voters appear to be voting for Alliance, Greens and PBP.

    In the 2015 election we seen a huge increase in the electorate. These arnt ex SDLP voters who have been in suspended animation. Simply put the turnout in the 2015 election was good and the SDLP could not get people in the here and now to vote for them.

    The only result on paper that looks anyway good for the SDLP is Newry and Armagh. But when you consider that SF had a good result and that unionists also increased their vote with an very ordinary candidate who appears to have spooked horses, its groundhog day.

    The problem the SDLP now face is the Greens and PBP will be appearing in places like Newry and Armagh. So new voters will have a choice in future

  • Robin Keogh

    Lots of people seem keen to ask the SDLP what they are going to do to change their fortunes, the same people seem to struggle to answer the questions themselves. Obvously it is up to the SDLP to work that out as a party but it amuses me when commentators pose questions they have no answer to. The SDLP is a nationalist social democratic party. Its policies are left of centre and are likely to continue as such. I think it is possible that some nationalist voters are sitting at home on polling day fed up that their reps have no power in London and very little in Stormont. It is also possible that the antagonism that exists between SF and the SDLP could be off-putting also. If the SDLP took a stronger stance on Irish Unity and possibly took the lead in organising a pan nationalist review on the subject with a view to publishing a joint document, they could make headlines. Eastwood seems a likeable character, so far. He might consider organising the party on an all Island basis to counter Sinn Fein’s position and challenge FF in therest of the country.

    With 18% in the most recent Sunday Times Poll and 16% in two consecutive Red C polls, SF are hardly seeing a significant reversal. In terms of younger voters; if the polling company doesnt have an accuarte representative sample it is unlikely to get an accurate reading. FF are still seen as the authors of the economic downturn so in fairness to Martin he has no choice but to do whatever he can to distract from that and the chaos at Fianna Fail conventions across the country. Despite everything FF have more to worry about trying to get above the 20% mark in time for the election, or at least MM has more to worry about. But, you never know Mick, maybe private polls are giving a different picture. The lesson then for the SDLP; they don’t need to attack Sinn fein, as FF have learned it doesnt necessarrily win you support.

    Sinn Fein’s growth has been sustained by hard work and a positive public response to representatives such as Doherty, Mary Lou and Toibin. There is a squeeze on the left due to the economic recovery for sure, but we do not yet know if that squeeze is tight enough to last until polling day next spring.

    Would you have any info on the ‘outrecruiting’? Is it 2:1 or 3:1? Fianna Fail’s promise to contest the 2019 Ass elections should create a novelty bounce, they should be able to capitalise on it if they are organised properly and don’t scare anyone away after just one meeting, as tends to happen in the 26.

  • Acrobat_747

    Some good points here Robin.

    I do think the SDLP are obsessed with SF, and likewise SF are obsessed with the SDLP. However this antagonism appears to hit SDLP much harder so it’s them who need to move on.

    Ultimately a strong SDLP is good for SF and good for northern nationalism and an increase in SDLP assembly seats does not mean a reduction in SF seats.

    The SDLP are so democratically run and there is such freedom in the party that I think it actually confuses SF (and the DUP). It is a party of individuals who have to battle each other hard to get nominated. This is in the very fabric of the party and won’t change and is at the route of the SF/SDLP rivalry.

    Regardless of who wins the party cannot, will not and should not be controlled. Leading the SDLP is like herding cats.

  • I have come to view the SDLPs supposed Irish nationalism as more of a internal party faction, rather than central to the party.

    I’m curious to know how strong the non-nationalist element of the Justin Cartwright type are within the SDLP.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Nick, now we don’t finger print every vote or believe the poll to be exhaustive.
    Foyle’s the youngest political constituency. The population of two rural wards Claudy and Banagher out of a constituency were replaced in a generation. With a 57% turnout and 43% not voting also having a large degree of uncertainty from the growing population, the easy answer of votes from McCann isn’t necessarily the most obvious one and it is completely impossible to prove. There are probably 3 times more non-voters than McCann voters, now I don’t know if a People before Profit voters is 3 times more likely to vote SDLP when McCannn is out of the competition than a non-voter, even if they were as many “new votes” would come from previous non-voters (including its significant youth population) as would be from People before Profit.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well Lo suggests you can support Irish unity as an Alliance party member. She isn’t a nationalist though.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Kevin – entirely fair points. I would add that these new voters are likely to be pretty volatile. In the old days, if you got someone’s vote at 18, you had it for life. Now every vote has to be fought for, every time; and the first problem is getting voters to turn out at all.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    I thought she was a Hong Kong Seperatist ?

  • Kevin Breslin

    They might well be volatile, but assuming them to be apathetic and the same voters being conserved from the last time around is not very applicable to the likes of Foyle and West Belfast. These young people would have not been registered last time around.

    As bad as the problem of getting young voters to turn out at all may be, even only 10% caring to vote for say Sinn Féin in Foyle and none to the SDLP would have a significant swing effect I n a Westminster poll.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’m not sure if McDonough Brown was ever an SDLP voter or if he was even able to vote in the 90’s.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Alliance has its own demographic problems, the further from Belfast you go the less impact it has. This means Alliance lacks an identity that deals with real border economics, even to the likes of other so called “cross community” parties like the Green Party.

    Alliance were also victims of “political monoculturalism” by unionism in East Belfast, which is about making people commit to simplistic self-labeling and nothing else. Unfortunately the Alliance candidate for Foyle was pretty similar to what would pass for the DUP in East Belfast in his belief that Foyle’s economy could be advanced by a military legacy program. The DUP in Foyle don’t even believe that.

    No one wants to be a loyalist waiting on a 1950’s war dividend these days, apparently not even the loyalists if we are to believe what we hear, never mind the constituency where Bloody Sunday took place.

  • Lord Coleraine

    That proves my point

  • Kevin Breslin

    And Justin Cartwright of the SDLP was plastered over Slugger O’Toole for his “economic unionism”, which may disprove your point. There are some who’d still pick a “labour party” over a “liberal party” regardless of “nationality makeup”

  • Lord Coleraine

    Ah yes I remember him. Wasn’t he slated by SDLP supporters and members for doing so?

  • mickfealty

    I tried to keep my questions down to two there Robin. I tend to resort to questions when I’m not sure of the answer. Where I tentatively agree with you is on the missing all island context.

    It’s not necessary for the SDLP to suddenly grow a southern limb in what is already an overcrowded political space. In a sense you’re matching a SF strength with an SDLP weakness and inviting us to judge them accordingly

    But I do think it needs to build sufficient provenance to allow it to develop a strong North South policy platform to breath life into north south bodies that have segued into near dormancy under the DUP/SF dual monarchy.

    There is also a criticism of the party that flows from this, in that it feels like a transitionary party, ie one with few fixed values and identity beyond the iconic figures of its past.

    On the Red C polling, I disagree on two substantive matters.

    One, the idea that FF will struggle to break 20% has to be compared with them topping the poll in the locals and bottoming out in the EU poll on the same day. It’s national network is strong and its capacity to recruit decent candidates across the country is underwritten by that strength.

    Two, I don’t doubt the qualities of the three deputies you mention. Two of them are superb steals from FF in fact. Pearse is widely respected for his grasp of economics (though his let’s do a Argentina never passed muster).

    Reconsidering Gingray’s point about the outlier figure, and the odd fluctuation he’s tracked in the 14/15 figures I wonder if the depressions in the party’s figures marks the approach of an actual election?

    On your last, I don’t think their are actual figures as such. I’m going on FFer accounts from people who were there. I’m assured by other sources that this has been happening for some time now.

    I see it as less as an indicator that it is time for FF to move in NI (the party’s current positions are decidedly undercooked for actual on the ground engagement in rep democracy), more that young nationalists seem to be looking for something that’s not currently on offer from either NI Party.

    It’s something that’s well worth noticing.

  • Kevin Breslin

    And I know Alliance supporters who slated Anna Lo.

  • Lord Coleraine

    Alliance isn’t defined on national identity or nationalism. The SDLP is.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Border economics is quite simple:

    An awareness of the local economies of Derry/Londonderry county, Tyrone, Fermanagh, South Armagh and South Down, and indeed the common challenges facing Donegal, Monaghan, Louth, Cavan and Leitrim as well.

    It transcends a simple nationalist/unionist/other ideology as all people in these regions faces these regional challenges regardless of their political persuasion.

    These regions are significantly different from the Greater Belfast ones, and indeed many areas of Great Britain.

    Regions West of the Bann or indeed well South of Carlingford Lough expecting a trickle down from Belfast, or in some cases a trickle up from Dublin is completely unrealistic.

    Political Monoculturalism is typified by the Unionist Pact policy of the UUP and DUP which was virtually a policy free ideologue stance in the four areas it took place. It is effectively Unionist politics without the burden of a social Covenant.

    Not sure why the response to why the post was deleted, I found little offence.

  • Lord Coleraine

    Apologies I only just saw this. I think my previous comment was deleted because of my description of the Alliance candidate for Foyle, which, in hindsight, was a little insulting.

    I suppose Alliance’s problem re. border economics is its lack of presence in those areas. They have some good youngsters in places like Omagh, Strabane etc so hopefully we’ll see a bit more joined-up thinking from them on that front. They have quite a good presence on the North Coast too, which has its own issues.

    Do you see Alliance as having taken part in the political monoculturalism of East Belfast?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Alliance were considered a small “u” unionist party up until very recently, its memberships that change parties, not the other way about. There’s no constraint on pro-union people or non-Catholics joining the SDLP. From its inception it was always a coaltion of the red and the green because of the divide and conquer politics of the single party unionist parliament.

    It is a mainly nationalist simply because the majority want it to be. There are social democratic members including even economic Irish nationalists within the party who’d be happy if the party was a social democratic party first, a social democratic party that supported the protection of the “unfetterable” rights to self-determination and unity through referendum.

    Many of these “nationalists” would define their “nationalism” not by the Gaelic League or the Easter Rising, or even John Hume but from the Ireland influenced by the Labour Party of Mary Robinson Presidency (even Dick Spring’s leadership can’t be underestimated) and the reformist potential was as critical in shifting the culture there as Hume was in the North … it’s no accident that the likes of Dublin born, Spanish raised Conall McDevitt and Galway born Belfast raised Claire Hanna are often associated with this Labour element/passion within the party.

    The belief that the “Cause of Labour is the Cause of Ireland” still holds among manyin the party.

    It’s simply logical, we get the Northern Ireland, Republic Ireland, Irish unities and unity between the islands that the people within them work for, not the ones we simply want or aspire to. That’s what the three-strand Good Friday Agreement was all about.

  • eac1968

    ‘my gut feeling is the biggest single factor there is that former SDLP voters simply aren’t bothering any more’

    Nicholas, I think you’re spot on with this one. I’m an ex-SDLP voter but I haven’t given my vote to anyone else. I see nothing encouraging from any of the parties or candidates in my area and I won’t vote just for the sake of it. The way the SDLP selects its candidates in this area disgusts me; as a result I can never trust them again. Maybe in future elections I will find someone I can support, but so far I haven’t managed to. And I know for a fact that there are a substantial number of folk who do as I do.

  • Sharpie

    Surely SDLP has to be a social democratic party and that’s all, or to drop that entirely from their manifesto.
    Right now I see them as a party wanting to straddle social democracy (but being very scared of that at the same time) and churchy conservatism at the same time. They are egotistical, self congratulatory, complacent, entitled, smug, elitist, and snobby (except in Derry). In a Belfast analogy they are the middle class Falls Rd set who love the social climbing, grammar school. They don’t talk to their constituents – only their close supporters.

    They need to drop the whole United Ireland thing as it is not on the agenda, they are not doing anything about it anyway and certainly not helping to make any progress towards it. If they want an identity they make themselves be the best social democratic party they can be with all the uncomfortable stuff that entails. They need to be vocal advocates of social progress, innovative in promoting creative solutions for NI’s economy (not big box direct inward investment). They need to champion a vision for inclusive education.

    They will win lots more votes for not being SF than trying to be SF lite. To do that they must be more humble, participative, in learning mode, enabling, engaged, and to do that while setting out strong social principles.

    When Conal McDevitt walked he took a chunk of the future potential with him. If they are so fond of their origins they would do well to be inspired by them rather than trying to forever live off the interest. The political capital of Hume, Devlin, and Mallon has largely eroded.

    Biggest question – do they even know what either the missing electorate (or the current disgruntled electorate) wants from their political party?

  • tmitch57

    Politics in NI since the emergence of the local party system in the early 1970s has centered around two tribal contests in which the non-establishment parties engaged in ethnic outbidding against the establishment parties. On the unionist side the UUP was the establishment party because it had run Stormont for five decades and was the largest party whenever London periodically allowed a new Assembly during the period of direct rule. On the nationalist side the SDLP was the establishment party because it had the support of the Catholic Church and of Dublin. During the 1998-2002 period Dublin and London appeased Sinn Fein (as well as the nationalist electorate) helping it to surpass the SDLP. The DUP then exploited this to overtake the UUP on the decommissioning issue. Sinn Fein’s strategy for achieving Irish unity has been to prove that Northern Ireland was unworkable first through a quarter century of terrorism and then through obstructionism in the Assembly. The SDLP doesn’t really have a strategy for Irish unity, only supporting it through lip service. If the SDLP were to cooperate with the UUP and/or Alliance in providing an effective opposition to the ruling duopoly that has led to so much of the population giving up on the Assembly, it could eventually put the two parties back in power. They could then cooperate in making the province function smoothly, which would probably be a more effective strategy to enticing unionists into a united Ireland than has been Sinn Fein’s. It certainly cannot be a less effective strategy.

  • eac1968

    ‘I think it is possible that some nationalist voters are sitting at home on polling day fed up that their reps have no power in London and very little in Stormont.’

    They are not the reasons I sit at home Robin. Nor are they the reasons that other former SDLP supporters of my acquaintance sit at home either.

    There is a specific problem with selection of SDLP candidates in my constituency (South Down). Apart from that, under the current leadership, they no longer represent my views on a lot of social issues, they are totally uninspiring and they lack a clear vision of where they want the country to go. They appear to be stuck in the 1980s.

    I could never transfer my allegiance to SF under their current leadership either. This is for complicated reasons including past hurts (personal and more general) not sufficiently acknowledged or repented, very frightening attitudes to issues I would describe, for lack of better terminology on my part, as ‘social controls’, local knowledge of the histories, attitudes and demeanour of some candidates and their supporters and a failure, or refusal, to accept and learn from past mistakes.

    Until such time as the SDLP improve, or SF ‘normalise’ into a 21st century political party, I am afraid I shall continue to be disenfranchised.