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, can be left to history.
But now that the gun has been removed from mainstream politics, the UUs and the SDLP no longer have an alibi for failure. If the DUP and SF can form a government, they can – must – surely form a co-ordinated opposition. To be sure opposition lacks the binding agent of government responsibility but the dynamic of power sharing still applies.
The only course open to them is to work at developing as an alternative government. This is not a piece of fantasy but a survival strategy. For there is another obvious logic waiting in the wings, of single unionist and nationalist parties, with something or other- probably bits and pieces- in the middle. Even in our snails- pace system, politics does not stand still. The longer they leave building a formal relationship, the more middle class support will leech to their bigger rivals or fragment further. It is happening already before our eyes in the growing competence of the SF and DUP, just as old school rigidities survive in their own ranks.
Yes there are risks. But frankly, what have they got to lose?
Brexit now heads the list of long term opportunities for them to act as pacesetters and mediators and change the terms of debate. So far the “coalition of extremes” of the DUP and Sinn Fein seems stuck in their rival nationalisms. If they remain deadlocked the outlook is poor for managing through the reefs and shoals of a new order outside the EU. The “centre ground’s ” greater pragmatism ought to be tailor-made for strengthening the relationships for seeing through Brexit. Whatever is the final deal, more open minded thinking is needed that reaches beyond the rigidities of the nationalisms, giving much greater prominence to both north-south cooperation and the British-Irish links, and stretching beyond the narrow bounds of national preference. In other words, the GFA structures will be more important than ever. They should not be left to governments alone.
Granted that applying the terms “coalition of extremes “to the DUP and SF, and “centre ground” to the SDLP and the UUs can be misleading. But “centre ground” captures a less doctrinaire approach to the divide and suggests a greater pragmatism. This allows them to differentiate with their bloc leaders through developing joint policies. It does not require anything like a political merger, any more than the Executive parties have merged. Communal loyalties of course remain strong but they are becoming a shade less definitive. Any jibes from the DUP or SF that each of the main opposition parties will be betraying their own side by cooperating in opposition should be seen off. What else are the DUP and Sinn Fein supposed to be doing in government?
Step by step
Some commentators get ahead of themselves and go straight to the obstacles to an electoral pact. Yet it is not inconsistent for Mike Nesbitt to form an SDLP alliance and yet call for an electoral pact with the DUP for Westminster seats elected by first past the post where the main opponent is Sinn Fein. Admittedly this would be more of a problem in Belfast seats which would become even more marginal after the boundaries are redrawn. A pact for transfers in Assembly elections has to be on the cards if cooperation between them is to have a real impact with the voters. It would be a major development in our politics. But it could not begin to happen until they have reached agreement on policies that would win significant cross community support.
.So start with the issues. Since Fresh Start Executive progress has been agonisingly slow. There is a huge opportunity for the UUs and the SDLP to act as pace setters both in the committees and the chamber.
It is within their range of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP to forge compatible positions on a range of policy. Their criteria should be to create a common interest which identifies win: win for east and west, city and country and frankly unionist and nationalist. There is no point in remaining mealy mouthed about calculating party political dividends which too often result in deadlock. Let’s have them out in the open.
Agreements are surely attainable on same sex marriage and limited abortion; an expansion of shared education in the classroom; and a switch in health spending to social care. On the Troubles legacy, support for victims on the basis of need is long overdue. On disclosure, neither has a dog in the fight. Agreements should be reached not through inter-party secret deals but by carefully prepared civil society consultation including town meetings. Plenty will fail but some will succeed.
While it is futile only to preach doom, Brexit is a setback that could even bring the whole House down. (Mr Eastwood please note.) The opposition parties should insist that the Executive begins to work on common interests rather than party differences. To do that they need to agree between themselves. On North-South cooperation the absence of unionists in Enda Kenny’s forum is clear evidence of a lack of mutual understanding in spite of the existence of the GFA institutions. In the medium term there are the myriad implications of Brexit to work out – the future of farm subsidies, fishing rights, the integrated energy market, environment policy. The list goes on, beyond the competence of any one party or even jurisdiction to solve on its own.
Author’s rather obvious message
On institutional reform the two parties should campaign for an end to the unionist, nationalist and other designations – but over time, on the basis of mutual confidence and with some indication of public approval. They should not be put off by DUP support.
Only through trust and mutual support can momentum be built up to create an alternative Executive. The aim should be to ease the new “restlessness” of the nationalist people feared by Colum Eastwood as a result of Brexit and moderate the “the Union and only the Union” neurosis that has been a prime obstacle to unionist delivery down the decades.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London