Eastwood must dig his own trench and move his party out of the Hume shadow…

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.

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  • chrisjones2

    “You cannot kick the bums out” …..but if the SDLP is to survive it must start to kick the bums out one by one. And that process starts in just 6 months so Colum has very little time to get started

    I suggest that he also needs to consider that its not just a simple Headcount. Within Hume’s shadow many SDLP voters are a bit like the Fermanagh UUP – they may not be with us longer than 2 more Assemblies

  • Kev Hughes

    ‘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.’

    This is pretty much where most nationalists and republicans stand on the SDLP, it’s the envy and lack of hope that turns me off them. I SHOULD be their type of voter as I’m:

    a. Young,
    b. Uni educated,
    c. Left leaning.

    But they aren’t making me want to vote for them and that’s in the face of some not so great candidates that SF have offered up too.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I dont think there was anything wrong with giving another SDLP figure an appearance on The View. The UUP put no one up. Only Alliance put their leader in the Spotlight. It will do little to help Alliance that they did.

    Mark Durkan did leave a much younger politician in Hamilton at unease when he made the point as will be made on Tuesday that the national security defence is not just protecting actors of “state violence”, it protects coluders and counterintelligent agents, it protects all the paramilitaries these informants were working for too.

    Eastwood isnt monarch of the SDLP realm. He needs a broader team than himself on this. There does need to be leadership outside the leadership and Mark Durkan is a reliable one.

  • CB Belfast

    This is kind of the issue. They should be able to offer something to those who tick boxes a, b and c, without necessarily having to tick box d (nationalist/ republican).

    There’s a lot of focus on how they win back the hearts and minds of the ‘nationalist’ community. I don’t think that trying to out-green anyone is the answer. It’s about credibility, offering alternatives on socio-economic issues etc.

  • chrisjones2

    Good point. In the past I have transferred votes to the SDLP but over the last few elections at every opportunity McDonnell jumped into the sectarian gutter in a vain and stupid attempt to out green the Shinners. I therefore stopped voting tactically as i saw the SDLP as becoming just SF Lite (or rather SF unfocused and unreliable)

  • Kev Hughes

    Thanks CB.

    Do they need to out green SF? I think it’s a side show; the SDLP are green and the term itself is a bit of a bs smokescreen to discredit perfectly legitimate nationalist desires.

    Where they need to move to is being credible. My good friend FJH is crowing at SF’s acceptance of that deal (?) but the point I often ask him is what would you do different to stop some things?

    From other gene pool SDLP folks I usually get silence or bluster. It’s the politics of envy and mopery and I find it a massive turn off.

  • Sharpie

    The legacy of the past is the toxic one. SF is stuck, as are the unionist parties. There can be no satisfactory resolution to the past, there will be no effective truth recovery. In fact there is no legacy process from anywhere in the world that worked well. We can argue they did or dream they did, but essentially people had to swallow hard and move on. What those processes did offer was something – no matter how token.

    Here it will be the same. We know from lots of clever reports what should happen but it can’t. Many combatants are dead already so the truth has gone with them. The state will cover their own tracks and with it the tracks of hundreds of paramilitary atrocities. Despite having them in our midst for nearly 40 years we still don’t even know what constitutes a victim.

    Helping the country deal with the reality is the work that needs to be done instead of offering blind hope, preying on the hopes of families and loved ones.

    What does moving on look like? Is anyone leading this debate? What will we do when the gap between those stuck by the history and those who are moving on becomes so big that it becomes how we are defined. The legalistic approach case by case is slowly killing our society. SDLP – hear this.

    How can you help society move on, to acknowledge the past but not be bound by it? How can you help make the future better and more attractive than resolving all the hurts from the past which will take years and will be ever present for every affected family, no matter what else happens. How can you bring the outside world and its realities into focus for business people, young people, students, public sector employees, local authorities and politicians?

    No political party is doing this. The seduction of internal (NI) problem solving is like a siren, attractive but futile in the face of what is outside our borders.

    SDLP – where is the maturity in political engagement and political thought? Big ideas welcome.

  • mickfealty

    Fair points Kevin. I agree with you on the other absence too. Perhaps he was just trying to avoid getting put on the spot on a deal for which there is little to pick a serious fight over. It pays a general to pick those fights that match their strengths, so to speak…

  • Mary Anna Quigley

    SDLP, handed power to murders – those who killed for power. Nothing to do with discrimination civil rights.This was big mistake, these shameless people attack john Hume home as well. Reap what you sow. Time to tell the truth what really did happen bloody Sunday, why cover up those who murdered more Catholics for power & control. More catholics punished by those in power today Army council


  • Newman

    Opposition at least allows space and time to regroup. Party is tired and sounds tired.Emulating Jeremy Corbyn style and talking of being all Ireland party lacks credibility.Why not attack the Stalinist tendencies of SF and start sounding a bit less old labour?. Core vote composed of those who refused to ever countenance voting to justify armed campaign. Not likely they will move now more probable they will abstain.