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.

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