It’s probably a measure of just how far from relevance the SDLP has fallen that the news of its new leader has been so quickly eclipsed last week by the news that Peter Robinson was to retire from politics.
It didn’t help that Colum Eastwood’s first speech was only heard by anoraks on Periscope rather than live TV, courtesy of his overweening (and, it turns out, over presumptuous) predecessor stealing that slot for a speech that became redundant within hours.
In this context, Eastwood’s decision to give the party’s first and only media appearance in the week after his victory to another predecessor was an odd one. The opportunity to signal a new course at the beginning of a painfully tight election timetable has been lost.
Accordingly there has been very little media comment in the wake of that election. Diarmuid Ferriter’s column on Saturday in the Irish Times was prompted by last Tuesday’s Spotlight programme rather than any innately newsworthy message from the new leader himself.
In Ferriter’s view the major task facing the new leader is to step out from the shadow of its former leader:
Eastwood, if he is to be successful, needs to dig his own trench and move his party out of the Hume shadow. He could start by taking his party into opposition in Northern Ireland and challenge the credibility of a Sinn Féin that has become a cheerleader for a 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate and a master of spin and compartmentalisation.
As a “no guns” party, the SDLP should also come up with a credible solution to a problem that, for all the heralding of the Fresh Start agreement at Stormont this week, has not been resolved: how to deal with what are referred to as “legacy issues” arising out of the Troubles, principally victims’ need for hard information, acknowledgment and truth.
If only it were that simple. Building a strategic trajectory out of the poor place the SDLP now finds itself is a tough call. Opposition in an all party all inclusive (come what may) Executive is a particularly tenuous concept. Put simply, you cannot kick the bums out.
The legacy issue may hold some promise for the SDLP. Robinson’s near casual offer to put all documents relating to that, as yet unresolved, matter into the public will likely reveal a less than robust approach by Sinn Fein. Which means it probably won’t happen.
In fact, the SDLP need to turn their faces away from the past (where most of their political glory lies) and head in the other direction: primarily doing what it can to enlarge the shadow of the future (rather than the past).
They need to create an expectation that (by voting SDLP) the future will be better than the present or indeed the past. Success should encourage the electorate to judge their politicians by their actions rather than their words.
The more people are winning, the easier it becomes to avoid envy. And envy is the nameless cancer that has been eating the party from within.