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.

Strategic Communications Consultant, located in Washington, D.C.