The rise of the Democratic Unionist Party over the last decade and a half has harmed the older Ulster Unionist Party. On the nationalist side, the same thing has happened, but the change has been much more pronounced. Colum Eastwood, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, has committed himself and his party to recapturing the heights it once enjoyed before the meteoric rise of Sinn Féin. Not afraid to make bold pronouncements, Eastwood has called the SDLP “the most successful political party in Irish history” for its role in the peace process, but not a single election the party has entered since the turn of the 21st century has borne this out.
The SDLP was elected as the largest nationalist party when the Assembly first came into being in 1998. It had played an important role in the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement, and its role in Irish history up until that point is beyond dispute. Former party leader John Hume came just over 2,000 votes shy of toppling Ian Paisley as poll topper in the following year’s European elections. After this, however, things started to turn bad for the party. The 2001 Westminster and local elections saw the party’s support begin to ebb away, culminating in a huge drop in the party’s support in the 2003 Assembly election. The SDLP vote fell by 5% and over 60,000 votes.
In many areas, the SDLP’s vote declined, most notably in South Down, where poll-topping MLA Eddie McGrady stepped down to focus on his work as an MP, allowing the two main unionist parties to make gains. The overall result was catastrophic for the party. The DUP’s eclipse of the UUP pushed the SDLP back from second place, and Sinn Féin’s growth pushed it even further to fourth place overall, with 18 Assembly seats. The Ulster Unionists were under threat from the Democratic Unionists, and with Sinn Féin’s prospects improving with every election through the 2000s, what would this mean for the other nationalist party?
2007: Out of Europe, Down in Stormont
The 2004 European elections were a disaster for the SDLP. John Hume’s retirement meant their European Parliament seat was in serious jeopardy, and with a massive 13% drop in support, the new candidate Martin Morgan fell to fourth place, with Hume’s seat going to Sinn Fein’s Bairbe de Brún. This was the first time since the party’s beginnings that their vote share fell below 100,000. There were further declines in the Westminster and local elections in 2005. 31,000 less votes for the SDLP meant 16 less council seats, and while the party maintained its three seats in the House of Commons, its support dropped by 44,000 votes and 3.5%. By the time of the 2007 Assembly election, the SDLP’s poor performances and Sinn Féin’s continued rise meant the former wasn’t expected to make any gains at all.
The SDLP’s vote dropped to 105,164, and two seats were lost in West Tyrone and Lagan Valley. The rise of both the DUP and Sinn Féin was having an enormously damaging impact on the party, which seemed unable to get out of the other nationalist party’s shadow. In South Down, traditionally one of the party’s heartlands, the vote dropped even more as Sinn Féin’s Caitriona Ruane topped the poll.
2011: Uphill Battles and Downhill Results
In 2009, Alban Maginness was unable to recapture the SDLP’s lost European Parliament seat. The next year, the party’s vote share fell in the Westminster election, though the party still retained its three seats. The 2011 local elections saw the party’s votes fall below 100,000 again, with a further 14 seats lost. New party leader Margaret Ritchie faced an uphill battle to rebuild her party, and the 2011 Assembly election demonstrated just how difficult this battle had become.
94,286 votes (not far above half of their 1998 share) and the loss of two further seats appeared to seal the SDLP’s fate as the fourth place party. There was some good news – Ritchie overtook Ruane to top the poll in South Down – but it was small comfort. Even in Foyle, always a strong SDLP constituency, the margin between the SDLP and Sinn Féin was razor thin. Ritchie stepped down as leader in 2012, succeeded by Alasdair McDonnell. He continued her vocal criticism of Sinn Féin, though this criticism had little effect on voters.
2016: Success and History
Alex Attwood ran for the SDLP in the 2014 European elections, and came within 2,000 first preference votes of the UUP’s Jim Nicholson. Unfortunately for the party, transfers widened that gap, and the party remained in fourth place. The local elections the same year continued the trend of declines, and the 2015 UK general election returned less votes for the SDLP in any Westminster election since the party’s foundation. Against this continued drop in support, the party voted McDonnell out as leader. He was replaced by Colum Eastwood, who has dedicated his first three months as leader to promoting the party as a viable and strong force in Northern Irish politics and reclaiming its old support. Martin McGuinness’ move to Foyle has raised some eyebrows, as commentators predict the deputy First Minister’s personal vote may impact on the SDLP’s support in that area. Eastwood and Mark Durkan are sitting MLAs there, and they have refused to acknowledge McGuinness’ move as any kind of threat, instead promoting the SDLP’s record there. The party are also confident about keeping their South Down support, and possibly making gains in other nationalist areas such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where recent troubles on the Sinn Féin ticket might give some aid to the SDLP, though they would need to run more than just the current declared candidate, Ritchie McPhillips.
So what next for “the most successful political party in Irish history”? If Eastwood succeeds in promoting his vision of a revitalised SDLP with an active role to play in Northern Irish politics, then the 2016 Assembly election may finally see a change in the party’s fortunes. If not, it is very difficult to see a viable future for a party which has had an enormous part to play in Northern Ireland’s past.