The questions the SDLP has avoided asking for 15 years can be avoided no longer.

Memo to the SDLP: Night is not darkest just before the dawn. Night is darkest just before it goes completely black.

The SDLP gather in Armagh this weekend to answer the question: Who will lead the party?

Against a backdrop defined, since the early 2000s, by atrophy in party membership, party donors, and party votes, indulging this pass-the-parcel question represents a decadent act; a distraction from the urgent, existential questions Alasdair McDonnell was elected to tackle head-on.

The SDLP membership needs to get real. No, it doesn’t have a messaging problem. It has an actual problem: What problem does the SDLP solve?

Without a functioning organization steered by an executive with at least a toe in reality, the SDLP cannot hope to answer the questions it should have been answering for more than a decade before McDonnell was elected to stop the rot.

Questions like these:

  • The burden is no longer on unionists to defend a dodgy state. The burden is now on nationalists to define and defend a disruptive ideology. Is a vague aspiration – one lacking any semblance of a credible strategy – really worth a deeply divided community?
  • Is the SDLP primarily a Social Democratic Party or a coalition of opposition to the Provision IRA’s violence?
  • Since the British state ‘facilitated’ the rise of the Provisionals’ political faction, SF, the mantle of opposition to PIRA violence has been worn by Provisional SF. Since SF has represented the political alternative to the IRA since at least 1996, what is the SDLP’s brand proposition?
  • The Provos’ capacity for violence has remained but its ferocity has been directed only at those within the Nationalist community who dared cross its leadership, its members, or its members’ mates and relatives, either politically or even socially. So, SDLP, how many nationalists have to be attacked, maimed, or killed by members of the Republican movement before the party would consider SF unfit partners for government?
  • The SDLP purports to support a united Ireland, so why does it support the increase of the British state’s stranglehold over NI’s economy; why does it insist on making the local economy revolve around London subsidies rather than investing in, and believing in, the genius of local people and their capacity to build an economy in their own image?
  • The SDLP purports to support a united Ireland, so why doesn’t it have any proposals to integrated public services in border counties than any voter can remember?
  • The SDLP purports to support a united Ireland, so what does it say to those who believe that the contest for the non-Unionist voter should be between an increasingly popular Alliance Party’s project of building an fair and inclusive NI, and a Fianna Fail party prepared to walk the Republican talk and organize in every county on the island?
  • The SDLP purports to support a united Ireland where all traditions are respected and protected. Why, then, does the SDLP distinguish itself from the Alliance Party by drawing attention to Alliance’s contentment and preference with NI’s “British links”? In a united Ireland, which British links get to stay and which would have to go?
  • The SDLP claims to want an inclusive, “shared society”. How then have terms like “integrated education” been conflated with assimilation on their watch? How can a school that refuses to provide Gaelic Games be considered “integrated”?
  • Founding SDLP members once ran against the old Nationalist Party’s Eddie McAteer with the slogan, “Let’s face it, Eddie’s past it”. Could the Civil Rights revolution have been championed by new members from within the old, tired Nationalist party? If not, how can the infinitely more radical project of ending two states, and creating a new, third, all-island state, in the face of fierce resistance, be achieved from with the engine room of the post-Good Friday SDLP? (Especially when this goal is based not on a justice project but merely an identity preference.)
  • Joe Hendron once won one of the party’s most impressive, and most important electoral victories, in West Belfast, during war time. During peace time, where’s the SDLP in West Belfast? Why have people of Dr. Hendron’s caliber left (and stopped joining)? Why join the SDLP?

SDLP delegates have a choice to make this weekend.

They ought to make it based on an honest appraisal of their situation, discard with fantasies about ‘better messaging’ panaceas, and begin the process of justifying an Irish Nationalist project that lacks public support, intellectual coherence, or a justifying political rationel.

They should let Alasdair complete the reorganization work that should have been done 10 years before he was elected.

They should let Colum save himself for a new conversation based on truly all-island politics, and free from the suspicion that he’s been conscripted as the new face of the old, old guard.

Then they should call FF and beg for a merger.

If the SDLP wants to become a Nationalist party of relevance, its members need to concentrate on organizing a national presence, defining a national policy platform, and articulating a vision of an inclusive, prosperous, Republican nation that no Irish Nationalist has managed to articulate since 1798.

Northerners have been losing out for a long time.

Many of the world’s leading job creators have been heading for destination Dublin. Belfast, barely 2 hours north, and with some of the most highly educated workers in Europe, may as well be 2 days north via camel hike.

The Republic of Ireland has confronted many of the problems that imprison the north to this day: sectarianism – gone; public sector reliance – gone; addiction to  London’s approval and subsidy- gone.

The north is its own problem, defined by its leaders’ willingness to perpetuate the root causes of stasis.

The Republic has its problems but it’s defined by its capacity to solve them.

It’s time for an all-island, market-friendly party to start a new conversation.

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  • Ernekid

    I agree with what that this article says. There’s little point of the SDLP existence in 2015. I think if Micheál Martin got his act together and ran candidates in the North, they could land a killer blow to the mouldering remains of the SDLP. As a nationalist, I plan to vote for a nationalist party in the next election but I’ve a few problems with Sinn Fein. However I’ve been given no reason to see the SDLP as a viable alternative, leaving SF the default choice for nationalists.

  • mjh

    This is no time – six months out from an election – for the SDLP (or any other party) to start asking itself what it is for. It’s exclusive focus now should be to defend the seats it holds, and to run realistic campaigns to gain seats in at least two other constituencies.

    An internal debate now would be seen by the electorate as evidence of disunity and weakness.

    Actually it is perfectly obvious what the SDLP is for. Fundamentally it is a party for nationalists who are opposed to Sinn Fein.

    Within the Proportional Representation voting system there will always be space for such a party as long as nationalism remains a major political force and SF is the biggest nationalist party.

    The problem for some people is that they actually want the SDLP to be for something else – non-communal labour, soft republican, green Alliance, green social conservative or the northern wing of FF or FG or Irish Labour. But adopting any of those positions would splinter the coalition which votes SDLP.

    The problem for the SDLP is that its place in the party spectrum means that its electoral success or failure depends as much on the electoral fortunes of SF as it does on its own efforts. But most political parties have this sort of relationship with their main rival.

  • Ernekid

    Not being Sinn Fein isn’t enough of reason to keep existing as recent elections show that nationalists who are opposed to Sinn Fein aren’t turning out to vote for the SDLP they just aren’t bothering to vote at all.

  • murdockp

    The SDLP purports to support a united Ireland, so why does it support the increase of the British state’s stranglehold over NI’s economy; why does it insist on making the local economy revolve around London subsidies rather than investing in, and believing in, the genius of local people and their capacity to build an economy in their own image?

    I have bashed SDLP on many issues but singling this out is a tad unfair. The expenditure per head in NI is £2000 per capita higher not only that the UK median but ROI as well. We have a public sector larger in size than East Germany had at the height of the cold war. I am neither Nationalist or Republican, or Unionist, I am indifferent. But it is obvious to me that if one wants to create the conditions for Irish Unification that expenditure must be aligned with the country you wish to join. One can only conclude that the party which has put in place economic policies that will ensure that a United Ireland never happens is SF as they will not let our economy realign with the Irish Republic. The of SF/ IRA die hards will attack this point stating that no value can be placed on 300 years of exploitation and they have a point with this particualr grievance, but standing in the shoes of the Irish Taxpayer, I would not want to merge with a country with £2,000 per capita higher expenditure as the deal will be too expensive a burden to carry. The point I make is this is not a problem that has originated from the SDLP, this is a SF generated problem and it interlinks with NI’s problem to create its own economic platform as it is addicted to aid from others.

    Many of the world’s leading job creators have been heading for destination Dublin. Belfast, barely 2 hours north, and with some of the most highly educated workers in Europe, may as well be 2 days north via camel hike.

    I have the benefit of working in not only Belfast and Dublin, but London as well. Put simply, Belfast is not geared up for business. Planning is not fit for purpose, building control, not fit for purpose, councils not fit for purpose, government departments, not fit for purpose, six months wait for an electricity supply, ridiculous business rates, patchy fibre, rubbish airports, lack of infrastructure, aggressive unions, protected industries, protected monopolies and on and on.

    Every time an auditor looks under the bonnet of a NI public body the reporting is damning, the NHS a month ago, the prison Service last week, NI water two years ago. I think it is fair to assume that every one of the public bodies is alos in poor shape as they have undergone little or no modenrisation in forty years.

    Until NI strips back its public sector and opens up its economy and overhauls the protected industries / monopolies such as water and energy and telecoms it will continue to be and ‘avoid like the plague’ investment location.

    Tescos Chief executive Dave Lewis speaking about the UK last night said that Tesco pays 2.3 times a much business rates as Corporation Tax.In NI the multiplier is closer to four times, so we see our politicians bleating on about bringing Corporation Tax at 12.5% to NI, but in the meantime are literally ‘raping; the local businesses we have here through the rates system.

    If NI wants new businesses to locate here it needs now, today a competitive business rates system (which it does not have), a planning system in favour of development (we have a system that is anti development), cheap energy (which we do not have), one good airport (which we do not have), proper infrastructure (which we do not have). All pretty basic stuff I think you will agree.

    The point I make is all the political parties are inept when it comes to business policy and SDLP is in my opinion one of the worst for lack of policy. Why? Because anyone good at business won’t get involved in politics as they are too busy doing it and ex teachers and other individuals with the time on their hands to be politically active are who makes it in the traditional party system which is the reason the parties, in particular the SDLP are stale and void of ideas. Disruptive talent (The Steve Jobs types) dont make it past first base, but these are the people who bring fresh ideas and change.

    It is all very demoralising, in particular for the likes of myself who has no one to vote for at each election as all of the parties offer very little other than serving members and self interest.

  • Sliothar

    However I’ve been given no reason to see the SDLP as a viable alternative, leaving SF the default choice for nationalists.
    Couldn’t agree more. In addition, imho, as long as they are perceived – not all of them, I’ll admit – to be stuck on the right-wing fringe of the gay marriage/woman’s-right-to-choose debate, they will remain as also-rans for a sizeable proportion of the Nationalist electorate who are increasingly more secular and broad-minded in outlook than many of their representatives.

  • Kevin Breslin

    In Scotland, Scottish Greens were non-communal party, Scottish Labour also claimed to be non-communal. Both nationalism and unionism should not be communal arguments. I wouldn’t mind some parties even dividing on the issue during a referendum the way the Tories and possibly even Labour may do on Europe.

    Constitutional questions should exist, but their complexity and inclusive nature should be acknowledged, a proper debate should take place and localized action in the here and now such as entrepreneurship, tackling economic disadvantage, dealing with agriculture and energy issues etc. should not be forsaken. People build their own nations.

    It might take becoming non-communal angles to push the constitutional argument away from mere tribalism and heritage, to the realpolitik of economics, civil liberties and international affairs and emancipating people, especially with regards to safeguards to political opponents and dissent.

    Personally I think the varied heritage and history should acknowledged north and south anyway regardless of the constitution, the constitutional questions change over centuries and our heritages are a lot more mixed up than we care to admit.

    It would be helpful if unity or indeed the union as it remains doesn’t become something that is seen to protect or project a community’s aspirations but as a practical means of solving problems and on practical terms.

    There are a lot of peoples’s own personal Irelands, personal Northern Irelands and personal United Kingdoms will overlap anyway.

    What is common denominator between Nationalism and Unionism, and most of the rest is the majority want self-determination and local people deciding the most localized issues. The majority of Catholics aren’t ready for Irish unity, the majority of Protestants don’t want to be ruled exclusively from London and the NIO. We are were the people want us to be because we haven’t offered them something better one way or the other.

    It’s not a problem for me that more unionists and nationalists are looking at organic unities they can forge in the here and now and question the constitutional possibilities and consequential rather than determining an end point and extrapolating backwards.

    I would vote for a unionist that I believe made my constituency a better place, if a nationalist who makes the constituency a better place gets a unionist vote, these are both acts of people choosing the type of place they want to live in through the democratic channels.

    Good politics should transcend borders and political arrangements.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Sinn Féin was never the reason for why the SDLP exists, I feel that as long as SF doesn’t justify the past violence of the Troubles they need to be viewed as the competition not the enemy, the way the DUP and UUP, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil view one another.

    It would be strange to look at any political party and speak with complete affirmation what they stand for, because human nature isn’t one of complete certainty, there may be a few red lines and bottom lines that are constant across parties, but the small differences that vary between election cycles are often the most decisive.

    There are large sections that don’t care even when you factor in other parties and independents in areas which are considered largely nationalist. There does need to be political space for home grown political ideas from outside the current political establishment, if some parties get individuals that can provide the work and ideas to change politics or society here then they can grow a mandate.

  • Gingray

    The default choice of those who vote – a large chunk just do not even both now due in part to the failures of both parties. Its very disheartening as an Irish nationalist. Made worse that I am having to explain to my southern friends how FF coming North is actually a good thing.

  • mjh

    Can’t argue with a word of that, Kevin.

    However the non-communal ground is already well occupied by Alliance, Greens and NI21 (if they are still going). It looks like that is where PBPA are pitching their tent. And the Workers Party and the NI Conservatives also aspire to be there – although as they have proved it is very difficult to fully achieve a move from communal to non-communal voting support – and even harder to win voter approval for it.

  • A critical blog on the SDLP is something you just expect to see on Slugger at least once or twice a week. I find myself criticising the SDLPs predictable ad nauseam with the same repetitive, recurring comments of my own.

    It honestly baffles me how the leading lights in the SDLP have allowed themselves to plod along some 17 years after the 1998 Agreement, approaching each election with a survivalist attitude, and never effectively tackling the ambiguity of actual purpose that the party actually exists for.

  • Sliothar

    I am having to explain to my southern friends how FF coming North is actually a good thing.

    I’m not sure what you mean by this, Gingray. Do you think it’s actually a good thing or a bad thing? If you’re embarrassed at having to explain it, how can it be good? Or is it only good because it’s another alternative to SF? For my part, I think a FF move to the North would be a totally retrograde step with their taint of corruption and brown envelope politics.

    But I do agree with you that both SDLP and SF are losing the demographic battle to an extent in that the former is haemorrhaging votes while the latter appears to have peaked and is falling back somewhat. Disillusionment, apathy or a mixture of both? Looks like garden centres all over the place will be doing a roaring trade shortly!

  • Kevin Breslin

    Alliance has open unionists and nationalists within it. I recall McDevitt in his campaign saying he’d like to see the SDLP as a social democratic party that supports Irish nationalism more than the other way about, and that a lot of the people who support the SNP will not be Scottish nationalists.

    Saying there’s no room for Alliance and the SDLP and the Greens and NI21 to co-exist, might as well be saying Fianna Fáil, Irish Labour, the Irish Greens and Fine Gael couldn’t all exist in the ROI, or Liberal Democrats, Labour, the Green Parties can’t co-exist in the UK.

    People aren’t extremists, a lot of people are buying the DUP because they see them as pro-business and low state, others are buying Sinn Féin because they feel local government interventions can drive the economy and build a more equal society. They are somewhat moderates themselves, especially in comparison to how they were before, but they are communal moderates and power-sharing behind the scenes agreements seem to be the only diplomacy they are showing, as was the case in Good Friday Agreement politics. It would be interesting to open these debates though.

    If you want to appeal to hundreds of thousands of individuals you have to address balancing a lot of issues, and every one that can be addressed in an election cycle needs to. It is a case of picking battles, not simply disagreeing with the Greens and Alliance when you don’t really need to. In PR-STV it is mutually useful to have similar parties who want to protect a level of common ground, say the SDLP and Alliance on Europe for example. Similarities win the transfers, Differences the first count votes.

    I think the space is there for competition but are people competitive enough, even in some cases if they have to compete against cynicism.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Maybe be nauseated for the next couple of weeks, because the party seems to be getting a high level of attention for one that people say is in rot or in decline.

  • Gingray

    I think it’s a good thing in terms of broadening the choice available within nationalism and I am hopeful than initially at least Fianna Fáil in the north would be made up of people not tainted by corruption or brown envelopes.

  • Dominic Hendron

    “It would be helpful if unity or indeed the union as it remains doesn’t become something that is seen to protect or project a community’s aspirations but as a practical means of solving problems and on practical terms” I like a lot of what you’re saying but how do you develop that kind of politics, no-one is talking about it

  • Brian O’Neill

    Well there is a leadership contest and the party conference is this weekend. People would be complaining if we did not cover them.

  • Granni Trixie

    But SF DO try to justify past violence….constantly.

  • SDLP supporter

    There’s a lot of power and truth in Ruairi’s analysis.
    Just a few points:

    I disagree with the recommendation that the SDLP link up with Fianna Fail. FF are members of the European Liberals(their sister party in NI is Alliance !) and the SDLP has been a member of the Party of European Socialists(PES)/Socialist International. To turn around now and espouse a different philosophy would be like a daily Mass-goer denying Christ’s divinity. The electorate would rightly ask: ‘have you been hum-bugging us this past 40 years?’

    It would also be terrible politics: the party which would rush to take the SDLP’s place in PES, and another giant step in sanitisation, would be Sinn Fein. It would bring joy to the heart of vastly over-rated Mo Mowlam, wherever she is, one of whose projects was to have the SDLP ejected from PES and replaced by PUP/SF.

    That was a pretty devastating article by Tom Kelly in the Irish News yesterday and his conclusion that pro- and anti- McDonnell factionalism was killing the party’s soul. It’s not fair to put all the blame on him for the party’s disorganisation: it’s the culture that’s wrong, right back to Fitt and Hume. Too many arm-chancers got elected by franchising out the SDLP’s good name during the Troubles and then sold themselves to the electorate in many places as the Catholics/nationalists that didn’t support killing people. Once the Provos stopped the murder campaign (well, mostly), these guys had nothing to contribute and, because they weren’t being watched, actually had a perverse incentive not to put a local organisation in place, so that they wouldn’t be challenged at candidate selection time. How often did I hear these old gits say ‘there’ll be enough votes to do me my day’? Thankfully, most of them have gone, and are not missed, for there are very few guaranteed SDLP seats nowadays,

    The next SDLP leader will have to ensure-and very, very quickly- that there is a functioning branch in every DEA where the SDLP puts up a candidate, no exceptions, no excuses and no delusions that you can fight a three week election campaign with no organisational structure on the ground.

    Rather than get a dud result that shows to the electorate how ineffectual you are, it would be better to pass up on standing for the seat.

    There’ll have to be measurement, too, made public within the party and with no fear of naming and shaming: how many members do you have, how many new members did you recruit, do you hold monthly meetings, do you put out newsletters, what are your campaign issues, etc, etc.?

    It’s not rocket science.

    I think Murdockp does not realise that Sinn Fein see absolutely no contradiction in asking for a larger and larger UK Exchequer subvention as the private sector withers away. They don’t want the place to be viable. For them, getting money off the Brits in whatever form, subvention or DLA, is payback for 800 years of oppression blah blah, is a Patriotic Act and they don’t really care that, in those cases where the money is got fraudulently, can be seen as undermining self-reliance and self-respect.

    No point in looking to Dr. Joe Hendron: Joe will be 83 tomorrow (Happy, Birthday, Joe!), and he and Sally deserve their retirement. The West Belfast victory in 1992 was primarily down to twopeople and their qualities: the ‘happy warrior’ optimism, energy and decency ofJoe and the organisational genius of the afore-mentioned Tom Kelly. Tom committed all to paper and in the part of my constituency where my branch operates we still use his check-list.

  • Zig70

    To me all the questions seem a bit loaded. The IRA ceasefire was 20yrs ago, it’s not that relevant to the typical SDLP voters. Yes, asking the question if you are comfortable voting for a party that supported an armed conflict would draw an obvious response but the SDLP needs to lead on it’s positives. Easily are you socially conservative, and politically believe in a fair and just society and that government must play it’s role in maintaining that fairness then the SDLP is a possible home. If you were to ask ‘Are you a social democrat’ then the eyes glaze over. It’s that simple, the brand is lost. The brand was ‘do you support civil rights and democratic rights for all’. The civil rights bit was easy to communicate to joe public but the current pitch seems to be lost in internal language. Alisdair hasn’t got ‘it’ when it becomes to being a leader in the public eye. His piece in the BelTel highlighted this. He should recognize it, bow out and play to his strengths internally for the party.

  • Sliothar

    ‘Initially’?? Then it’ll be alright at a later date?
    Sorry, wind-up time!