An SDLP future. Form a Shared Future group and put the boot into those Assembly designations

It’s  very easy for an outside observer to talk but at least I knew  the founding generation of  the SDLP pretty well  up to the mid 1980s, if a lot less well since then.  A long time ago I know.  Regardless of political opinion they were way and afar the most able bunch of politicians around, pleasant and by and large pretty well adjusted, despite the pressures they were under. Yes and good for an agreeable  jar.   To a  man (mainly men I fear, sorry Briege ) they were without the glazed eye, the shutters coming down and the robotics or ranting that often disfigures  the  shinner and the dupper.

Most of all, they were bright people who wanted to get on with other people.  That’s what put them apart.

 They were the sort of politician we need more than ever.

It was sad to watch Colum Eastwood thrashing around in the recent election campaign. First  with an  anti- Brexit alliance that by definition had to include SF, then the anti-abstentionist party that by definition had to exclude SF , finally as an afterthought, a supporter of an eventual border poll, giving a perfectly timed signal to put off leaning unionists.  Caught between trying to keep a flaking core and attracting a unionist offshoot.

Confused and confusing messages

The  terrific Nicola Mallon surely got it right when she said in terms the SDLP put reconciliation and cooperation before a united Ireland. Why not stick with that and follow the logic? If the SDLP differentiates clearly from SF and stays consistent they can afford to be relaxed about a border poll and over time transmit the thought to unionists.  Calmness is important  ; leave the Mexican wave stuff to  Sinn Fein.  A consistent alternative is even more so.  An 11-12% share is still enough of a base to build on.

Fianna Fail -SDLP no easy fit 

I can’t myself see the attraction of Fianna Fail, even though they’re  easing gently back to power. They’re desperate to stop SF  surging into their traditional  constituency as they absorb as much as they can of the  independents constituency. They  are are no longer the natural party of government.  And yet FF and the SDLP is not an easy fit .

Joining them means  the SDLP  are drawn into opposing  Fine Gael in power. FF itself  keeps thinking about independently organising in the north as a  counter attraction to SF.  But FF unlike SF had no roots in the north. Could  the SDLP survive the grafting in both senses of the word?

If the SDLP federated with FF  they would have to sign up  to a narrative that left northern nationalists out of it for a century, beyond a token show of  irredentism for the fourth green field. That’s a yawning gap.

Historically FF is a clientelist movement in a political system which barely has a secular welfare state. The SDLP would  always be the wee northerners, a pawn in a bigger political game . And most of all they would  have burnt a big bridge to unionism by signing up to the inevitability rather than the option of a united Ireland.

The more  traditionally nationalist of them ike Seamus Mallon thought  it was worthwhile to affiliate personally to get a Seanad seat  from Charlie Haughey and thus a platform. That that was  in the days when devolution was nowhere in sight.

The big alternative 

It would not be enough for the SDLP  to re-form in the new opposition. The really creative act for the SDLP would be to take the big risk and opt out of the nationalist bloc in the Assembly and join the Other – temporarily. At a stroke that would destroy the constricting designations that keep the Assembly bound in tight sectarian chains. If the UUP were to do likewise – and even if they didn’t –  a  re-formed Assembly with a weighted majority freed from designations would  break the mutual veto, the stranglehold of the leading parties  responsible for the present nonsense. This initiative would compel the repeal of the St Andrews Act under which the two largest parties automatically take the FM jobs. The new leaders would be elected by the entire Assembly with perhaps unexpected results.

The SDLP should  then try to form a loose but developing centre ground with the Alliance, Greens and PbP as well as liberal unionists who keep up the habit of flaking off as impotent independents. Unity would  remain a personal and party option to put to future test.   But the DUP -Sinn Fein mutual veto would be gone. One or other of them could be dropped from the  Executive.  By itself  that would discourage breakdown of the institutions.

They could call the grouping Shared Future.

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  • Jim M

    I personally would be very happy to see that situation emerge, though I doubt it will.

  • ted hagan

    Centre ground alliance? No, that would spell wipeout.
    All I can suggest is cosying up more to Corbyn and adopting his bold no-nonsense socialist manifesto which might steal some of the young voters from SF and even the centre ground. Just a thought.

  • Barneyt

    Very interesting. Growing up amongst the republican club, other in the fledgling SDLP and many others in the provisional burn stormont ranks, I think you have to look at the SDLP base. Many are anti SF and will I suspect always take opposite ground, regardless of any SF shift. Those that descended from the non provisional republicans are probably in that camp of perpetual SF antithesic reaction. Others are downright royalists in the generic and sometimes real uk sense. Others stray towards independence as they arent rebel enough to support the cause but like to allude towards it. Some might even be peace loving socialists.

    I see them aligning socially and politically with the likes of Fine Gael, and I could never see any republican alignment

  • epg_ie

    I really don’t know what’s left of an SDLP party if they declare they’re no longer for a united Ireland, after all that’s happened especially with Brexit. The Ulster Unionist Party would not ever ever ever call themselves non-unionist. But above all, would SF-DUP change the rules of their cartel to accommodate what they would consider to be a dying party pulling stunts?

    These recommendations often read like asking Northern nationalists to keep turning the other cheek, whether the right one to unionism, or the left one to Sinn Féin. All evidence suggests people in C21 like politicians who when struck strike back.

  • the Moor

    It is stick or twist time for the SDLP. If they’re a nationalist party committed to ending partition, merger with one of the southern parties who’d thus commit to organising in the north, thus presaging (and quickening?) the island’s destiny to be united, may make some kind of pragmatic sense but as it’d surely be an absorption, would thus signal a voluntary dissolution. Or, following Brian’s logic, ditch the nationalist ethos in favour of some manner of Labour or Social Democrat identity pitched in the fictive ‘centre’ ground of NI politics. Unless, simultaneously disavowing antipartitionism, this option is unimaginable. Nor would it work, one, as intimated, because the so-called centre ground is a chimera (and will remain so for as long as the constitutional question remains unresolved, and for antipartitionists – to be clear – that means until ended). Two, the party’s erstwhile attachment to catholic teaching will turn off liberals and vice versa abandonment of social conservatism would turn-off traditional catholic voters who’re not already turned-off by abandoning the nationalist imperative. Any or all of these choices results in irrelevance. Three, reform as a Labour party (or merge with the UK or Irish Labour Party): but this road is surely also a terminus because a) the protestant working class of the north associates Labour politics with antipartition (as of course do both UK and Irish parties) while the catholic working class is solidly republican and/or b) reform as a NI Labour party. Not only would the latter seriously hack-off the coterie of UK-affiliated Labour people who’ve been trying to convince Labour to put up candidates in NI but, as a devolutionist position, would not meet favour either of the national parties or the protestant working class who prefer the fangs of the DUP. Which is to say, none of the above, does anything other than hasten the party’s demise. One other fantastical option is available: coalition with Sinn Fein! Now that’d be a shared future that’d make sense to northern catholics.

  • Brian Walker

    People like Matt Carthy above are blind to the idea that unity is an option not a compulsion. His case simply ignores the fact that plenty are indifferent and many more implacably opposed. There are more urgent priorities like living better together. I’m sure there will be referendums plural one day, why not, but this is no way to unite anybody.

  • Karl

    The irony of Arlenes behaviour and Westminster success laying the groundwork for a FF / SF coalition in government in both NI and ROI in 10 years time. I hope whatever Theresa gives her is worth it.


    A Shared Future would imply joint authority or independence are also to be considered, no? Maybe that’s the panacea for the SDLP.

  • Obelisk

    Brian you laid out several futures for the SDLP because I believe their form of Nationalism, of gentle persuasion putting off the constitutional issue as long as possible, appeals to you. It chimes with several other posts you have made on the subject.

    You left out the most likely. The SDLP will remain caught between conflicting impulses, afraid to proclaim itself too Nationalist for fear of annoying the Unionists, afraid of dropping whatever pro-nationalist credentials it has for fear of losing support among the wider Nationalist community and afraid of adopting a progressive ethos for fear of alienating conservative Catholic voters. So they will suffer a slow, ignominious dissolution, shrinking with each and every electoral cycle, A feeble opposition that can’t compete with Sinn Fein is perfect for that party, a straw man they can steamroller without trouble.

    The SDLP doesn’t really have a future. And when the penny drops amongst it’s cohort of young and ambitious members (like Daniel McCrossan) it is trying to groom for the future, their story may end.


    It would also be pretty ironic for SDLP as the constitutional nationalist party to stop being nationalist when the opportunity to achieve a UI by constitutional means was never greater. What differentiated SDLP and SF wasn’t the strength of their desire for a UI but the method by which to attain it. There’s a hint in Brian’s analysis that because the SDLP didn’t use violence they couldn’t have been that serious about a UI, that they must have been closet unionists all along, which is troubling.

  • Obelisk

    I understand Brian’s point. Brian believes we should park the national question, get northern ireland to work and then, by that means, convince Unionists of the benefits of a 32 county state. That would occur over the timescale of five or six decades.

    The problem with that approach is that, first and foremost, Nationalists aren’t going to do that. Trying to work with and convince Unionists? Yes. Parking the national question so as not to offend their sensibilities? That is just not going to happen.

    Should the SDLP take the plunge and become a non Nationalist party in ideology, the very embodiment of the long term, Unionist veto granting, not in our lifetimes approach…then they will invite and deserve electoral oblivion on a far quicker timescale than I had anticipated.

  • Brian Walker

    Obelisk, You’re bound to think that as you believe the future only points in one direction. The difference between us is that I know it doesn’t. That still leaves you with being 50% right. Or wrong. ,


    Yes I think it would be bad for the party as they would haemorrhage what supporters they have in a bid to attract voters from what has been shown to be a very thin and largely theoretical middle ground. But it would also be bad for NI politics generally as it would embolden SF and lead to greater polarisation. The only UI-promoting party in NI would come with all the baggage of a paramilitary past and the revisionism that goes along with that. SDLP need to stick to their metaphorical guns on the national question. Perhaps they need a new pitch – joint authority as a permanent solution?

  • 1729torus

    Whilst a little dated, this article by Turgon should be mandatory reading for any Unionist considering voluntary coalition, or a similar arrangement such as the one that SF and the DUP are negotiating right now.

    Assuming no instability, the designation system will likely be gradually replaced with a system of weighted majority coalitions and votes at a very slow pace that suits Nationalists. SF and the SDLP will only ever be interested in reform to the extent that current system frustrates them.

    The Executive has already gone from mandatory coalition to “opt-out” coalition. As I noted, SF and the DUP have essentially been in coalition since mid-2016, and are negotiating a new one. The next step would be to introduce rules to allow for a minister to be forced from the Executive if 80% of MLAs are in favour, but this will not happen until the older generation in SF are on their way out.

    All that might be left of the SDLP in the long run after FF’s entry and SF’s gradual detoxification would be the Redmondite faction. This rump however would not be sustainable on its own; it’s most likely fate in the long run will be absorption or replacement by Alliance or FG.

  • Brian Walker

    Comment is fastening as usual on the bottom line unity point. My bigger point is about breaking the stranglehold of the block designations. You ignore the opportunity to score in government by obsessing about unity the whole time. Sooo 20th century!

  • Obelisk

    I have never indicated the certainty that my preferred outcome is inevitable Brian, only my belief that it is the best outcome. If the electorate wishes to persist with this dead-end status quo, then they may express that wish if a border poll is called.

    You are positing a future for the SDLP that tries to imagine they can break the shackles of this sectarian cesspit and become a transformative force no longer beholden to that status quo.
    Any attempt to do so will simply end up breaking them in turn.

    But if the SDLP’s base is willing to support such a move into the territory of non-designation, perhaps they should just cut out the middleman and vote for the Alliance party?

  • Obelisk

    The story of twenty first century politics in the north has been the elimination of the middle ground and the empowering of what, in the late 20th century, were called the extremes.

    We deal with politics as they are now, and the constitutional question is front and centre. And given the rise of Sinn Fein, and the inability of the DUP to frame their arguments on anything else but the constitutional question (this election will be a referendum on the Union said Arlene)…it is going to be for the forseeable future too.


    I think on the question of the SDLP forgoing their nationalism, Obelisk is the one being the realist here.


    The SDLP aligned with FF would score in government in Dublin every second term or so. It would be the DUP-Tory deal except every 5 or 10 years instead of every 100 years or so.

  • Brian Walker

    Why are you so keen on the designations?

  • tmitch57

    Brian, the SDLP already faced this option back in 1970 when it was formed in the same year as Alliance. Some like Joe Hendron defected from Alliance when the SDLP was formed a few months later because they wanted to be primarily a nationalist party. The replacement of Gerry Fitt with John Hume sealed the deal and demonstrated that the party was primarily a nationalist party. The best option for the SDLP today is to work inside the present structure with the UUP and Alliance to create an opposition that could potentially replace the ruling duopoly as it once replaced the feuding UUP and SDLP. Why would the SDLP want to get rid of a system that it designed? To do that would be to admit that it was mistaken, something that all politicians are loathe to do.

  • Granni Trixie

    In a memoir published this past year, Jim Hendron tells us that John Hume was approached by himself and others about being part of a proposed new cross community party. According to this account, HUme seemed primarily interested in its name, especially on the point of was “democratic” In the name. The rest is history for as we now know, Hume was considering forming a new nationalist party himself (though the first the NUM group knew of that was when SDLP was formally announced months after Alliance was launched).

    I was not aware that Joe Hendron was ever part of Alliance but will check this fact.

  • Obelisk

    Firstly because they reflect reality. Northern Ireland is politically riven with sectarian tribalism, and pretending that our major parties aren’t rooted in that division because it exposes that truth to a wider world is simply trying to pretend the issue doesn’t exist.

    Secondly, the designation means taking an honest stance on the constitutional issue, the one issue that trumps everything else here and will for many years to come. Like everyone I am interested in a well performing health sector, education sector and making sure the joke of an economy we have doesn’t completely collapse, but I am honest enough to admit that a party’s position on the border is a major factor in if I will vote for them. Currently, I transfer to the SDLP and Alliance in council and Assembly elections.

    The Alliance does not take a designation, but that is their honest position and one they have always stuck to.

    Should the SDLP have some sort of delusion that renouncing the Nationalist designation could herald some bright future for them, the Nationalist community would very likely be swift in disabusing them of such a notion. They would no longer receive my transfers for example. I am sure others would agree, because I would view at as a betrayal, confirmation of that suspicion I have had for many years that his party is in fact, at it’s core, almost embarrassed by it’s own Nationalism.

    There are no longer any easy answers for the SDLP. Your solution is the least likely, it would leave them adrift in our political system and ripe for dismemberment from Sinn Fein on the one side, and maybe the Alliance on the other (after all, you can’t out-letsgetalongerist the Alliance party) leaving a hard, impotent core.

    Hooking up with a major southern party would result in them becoming a local franchise of that party, but a rebranding exercise coupled with an unambiguous pro-reunification stance could allow them to take the fight to Sinn Fein in a way they currently stand no chance of doing. I’d rate this the second most unlikely option, it would require a dose of political courage and self-sacrifice as well as a toleration of some pretty hefty downsides that I think the party is unwilling to countenance. I may be wrong.

    But the likeliest outcome is more of the same, that the SDLP will take that long hard look at itself that Colum Eastwood promised last week…and then promptly get mired in internal factionalism that means nothing will be done. They’ll keep firing blanks at Sinn Fein, hoping for some major scandal (aka RHI) will give them an opening. Which, like RHI was for the Ulster Unionists, won’t be enough.

    The only thing that could save the SDLP is a return to Provisional IRA violence, it’s the only thing I can think of that would cause me to actively support them at this point. I really doubt that is on the cards.

  • Obelisk

    Joint Authority would be enough for me constitutionally, but I believe the only time Unionists will seriously consider the option is immediately after a border poll they have lost.

  • SDLP supporter

    Brian, some of the contributions here are downright parody. Despite Barney I have never met an SDLP royalist and in all my years in the SDLP (since 1970) I can only remember one Catholic priest who regularly attended SDLP functions (in Dublin): that was the late Aengus Finucane, a Limerick man, who co-founded Concern Worldwide. Some of the priests prominent during the troubles had an attitude to the SDLP ranging from dour suspicion (Fr Faul and his colleague whose name I just can’t recall) through to outright hatred (Alec Reid, Des Wilson, Joe McVeigh). Cardinal O Fiaich£

  • tmitch57

    I’m not sure if he ever formally joined Alliance, but he had at least indicated his intention to do so and run as a candidate.

  • Reader

    Obelisk: …but I believe the only time Unionists will seriously consider the option is immediately after a border poll they have lost.
    But do you imagine *you* would go for joint authority after *winning* a border poll?
    Instead you could try immediately before a border poll unionists expect to lose, but timing might be a problem.

  • Obelisk

    You know fine well that if we realise we are about to win outright that we will not pursue joint sovereignty. The point of joint sovereignty is to provide a mutually acceptable solution that parks the constitutional issue, essentially forever.