I always had a soft spot for the young SDLP. They were of an age, they were more fun to be with – and drink with – barring a few very honourable exceptions on the unionist side. And they didn’t go about being so bloody angry the whole time. They had leadership qualities, emotional intelligence and they had a life through all the pressures. They deserved better results. As their power disintegrated and their party split, Ulster Unionists tended to be more defensive but there were many you could do business with.
For those of us with long memories, the revival of a formal alliance between the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP (if that is what finally transpires), gives grounds for cautious optimism. The idea has been as obvious in theory as it has been elusive in practice ever since power sharing was first seriously mooted in 1972. When they came together, as in 1973 and 1998-2002, they were outflanked by the polarising effect of violence or the threat of violence.
The UUs and the SDLP finally lost their leading role and much of their raison d’être because of Tony Blair’s frank admission that “you don’t have guns”. This was his explanation for elevating IRA disarmament over the survival of the early Assembly led by the two “constitutional ” parties. The idea that they should have jointly called for the alternative of Sinn Fein’s suspension from the Assembly until the IRA disarmed,