After the election, and the SDLP’s gamble only just paid off…

In the event, that leaked internal SDLP report which suggest five of their Assembly seats were in trouble in this election accounted for two they lost (Upper Bann and South Belfast) and one they weren’t expecting (Foyle).

Swapping leaders with just six months to go left Eastwood little time to prepare for the fray. Radio silence from November till his relaunch in a second conference just before the campaign opened meant that the upgrade in his speech went barely acknowledged.

And yet the gamble, such as it was, has paid off. Twelve seats could have been nine or ten. In the process, the bed blocking babyboomers are gone, radically cutting the age profile of the parliamentary party to an average age of 44.

Two-thirds of their MLA team won a direct mandate from the electorate for the first time. That should facilitate a shift from survivalist, every man/woman for themselves alone mentality to one that’s more optimistic and aspirational.

In addition ‘making Northern Ireland work’ is a useful way to address the failure of either nationalist party up to this point to put their own distinctive stamp on the outworking of current settlement (and number 3 since 1998).

The fleg dispute brought headlines but few returns for nationalism in general: whilst one genuinely affordable cross border project, the Narrow Water Bridge, was nixed largely for the want of serious willingness to horse trade at Stormont.

The question any nationalist party of ambition must pose is: how to “unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and tradition” as per Article 3 of the Irish Constitution “in harmony and friendship”?

The most significant aspect of Northern Ireland’s birth rate is not how it breaks down according to sectarian geographies but that it is falling, just as it is across the developed world. And our school rolls will continue to drop as our labour force continues to grow.

For societies which embrace the future, a ‘demographic dividend’ is still (just) on offer. If youthful potential is harnessed, the economy will expand and society be strengthened. But societies that stagnate will face equally serious penalties.

If the SDLP can begin to find answers to these and other questions then voters will begin to listen again, and it may over time recover much of the strategic relevance it lost in the immediate wake of the Belfast Agreement.

They’d also do well to remember they’re a small party that needs to get bigger, not the other way round. Perhaps they should imitate Micheal Martin by ditching the title of deputy Leader and focus on making leaders out of every one of their twelve MLAs.

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