SDLP’s ‘unprecedented’ conversations begin

The Belfast Telegraph today reports on the first of what will presumably be a number of “unprecedented” conversations within the SDLP.

The SDLP’s Mid Ulster constituency council will discuss a possible merger with Fianna Fáil at a meeting in Maghera.

Local Councillor Martin Kearney said

“These are normal discussions which happen after every election,
“We’ve a great variety of old members and the young SDLP branch in Maghera is very active.
“We want to listen to them, there’s been such a lot of change.”
Quizzed on a merger with Fianna Fáil he said that 
“All options are on the table. 
“There have been many times this has been discussed before, this is not something new.” 

Former Director of Communications for the party Ruairi O’Kane has been reflecting on the election outcome at DerryNow.com and believes the party cannot afford another bad election :

“Realignment has been mooted in the past – it may now be the only option for the future.”

There are other views in the party however. Claire Hanna, now the party’s leading representative in South Belfast, said

“I don’t see what that solves, it doesn’t appeal to me,”

Over the years many in the SDLP associated themselves strongly with Fianna Fáil in the south. However many also looked to Labour and some to Fine Gael.

If the SDLP do undertake a series of unprecedented conversations it will also prove uncomfortable. Increasingly though an all-island amalgamation (with the organisational and financial support that comes with it) looks to be the only show in town.

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  • Fred Jensen

    I can imagine, 50 years in the future when the United Ireland eventually comes to pass, Fianna Fail will have swallowed the SDLP, Sinn Fein will obviously still be Sinn Fein north and south, while the moderate Ulster Unionist party will remain seperate but align themselves poltiically with Fine Gael (similar to the way Merkel’s party aligns herself with that Bavarian party in Germany) for the sole purpose of keeping Sinn Fein down politically. DUP obviosuly will not take their seats in the Dail in a mirror image of SF’s position of not taking Westminster seats.

    I will look so wise if anyone reads this in 50 years.

  • Sliothar

    What’s in it for FF? Not a lot, I would suggest.

    They’re looking to back winners now and the SDLP doesn’t look if it’s going anywhere but down.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    Over the years many in the SDLP associated themselves strongly with
    Fianna Fáil in the south. However many also looked to Labour and some to
    Fine Gael.

    In the past, when SF was the unconstitutional party, a big tent of constitutional nationalism was both viable and vital. Now that SF has become a slightly constitutional party, the SDLP’s unity of purpose is dissolved. If it were to formally align with any particular faction, I could easily see the rural/urban divide leading to ideological divorce, with rural conservatives going to FF and urban progressives to Labour. In any other country this might be seen as progress.

    But this is NI, and the political menu of the republic does not necessarily suit, not least because what passes for the entire political spectrum south of the border must by necessity only account for half (at most) north of it. Not many polities have room for more than half a dozen parties – beyond that the electorate gets salami sliced. There is a way out of that bind – but it lies across the communal divide. A vanilla Labour party shorn of the FF faction might be able to rebrand itself as a cross-community centre left alternative. This would be a risky strategy, but the alternative risks a decline into alphabet nationalism.

  • ted hagan

    To be honest, I sincerely hope none of the aforementioned parties wlll be about in 50 years time and that we will have involved into something better that reflects a multicultural society rather than a bunch of gombeen males.

  • Fred Jensen

    Possibly but careful what you wish for, we’ll probably have some new Trump style populist party instead.

  • ted hagan

    Trump?
    Paisley was first with that gig decades ago.

  • murdockp

    Its hardly rocket science.

    Stop listening to the die hard supporters and go out and talk to the electorate.

  • Christopher Mc Camley

    SDLP is very split between traditional nationalist and Catholic group and young LGBTQUERTY activists. The former would suit FF, the latter would suit Labour (British or Irish).

  • murdockp

    Why would the DUP not take their seats? (1) There is a material protestant population in ROI (2) Combined with this vote and the unionist vote they would most likely sit in government in Dublin and (3) Like has happened in UK with UKIP, the one trick pony that is Sinn Fein would be wiped out as there would be no need for them any more.

    Nothing would suit FF, FG and DUP more than watching SF become irrelevant.

    If I rolled the dice on 50 years, I would have thought that the new United Ireland would have to acknowledge the Crown / UK in a particular way such as joining the commonwealth of nations as an appeasement to the northern Ireland protestant population and why not if you believe in Equality?

    It is very arrogant of some Irish people to think that you can absorb 800,000 protestant people into a “new unified state” as it was before with out an acknowledgement of their identity and cultural traditions. All true republications should remember the origins and rationale behind the Irish Tricolour, we are meant to be a country where protestant, catholic and dissenter can live together in a independent unified nation.

    This failure to set a sensible vision of what unification might be is why we can’t get this country united.

  • Skibo

    Every large company that looks at a smaller company with merger in view, does not allow the present condition but the future growth of such a company as feed back before making a decision.
    What SDLP would give FF would be a network that they could adapt and mould. Instead of starting out in the North with a couple of student Cumann, they could have a region wide network to work on. They may even then be able to have some evidence of their republican credentials as an island wide party.
    All southern parties should be courting the SDLP at the moment.
    I think for all SF criticism of FF, they probably offer the closest comparison. perhaps FG will approach SDLP!

  • Christopher Mc Camley

    Meant to say regarding what’s in it for Fianna Fail, well it gets them quickly into northern politics with a ready made structure and set of councillors, MLAs. It allows them to present themselves as an All-Ireland party against Sinn Fein. They could also commit to not running for Westminster which would mean not going head to head with SF for seats they could no longer win.

  • the Moor

    Merger with FF or FG (but not the Irish or British Labour Parties?) in formation of a preunification party of catholic-christian democarcy, organizing on an all-island basis and in continued doctrinal hostility with Sinn Fein, looks like one of only a few options available to the SDLP in response to Sinn Fein’s inexorable hegemonization of nationalist politics in the north.

  • Skibo

    This republican would have no problem with associate membership of the Commonwealth.
    Where I find issue with your post is the one trick pony comparison of SF. They are currently the third largest party in the Dail. That will increase the further we move from 1998. That position is built strongly on socialist left wing principles and has replaced Labour as the working class party.
    Whether SDLP align with FF is not guaranteed. Perhaps SDLP and UUP will align with FG as all have a strong conservative strain, bar the urban as the post points out which may favour Labour or “drum roll” Sinn Fein!

  • the Moor

    To be fair, SF are surely by now a mostly–constitutional party. The vanilla Labour option you mention has been tried repeatedly and has repeatedly foundered on the rocky-road (ice-cream reference) of protestant working class aversion to antipartitionist labour politics.

  • the Moor

    prescient … a prognosticater, mystic Fred! But why 50 years? the historic day could be closer than that … Feasible (on the projected numbers) within 20 years, I’d say.

  • Karl

    I dont mind building a new shared nation with 800,000 unionists. All flags and emblems of the new state up for negotiation. Where I object is 800,000 out of 6,400,000 thinking they can include a throwback to the British monarchy in it. Time to look forward and up and backwards and down.

  • BERZERKERMG

    FFSDLP is a bit of a mouthful though.

  • BERZERKERMG

    I think in the North SF are not so much a party but a single-issue campaign for a lot of its voters. When/if a UI is achieved a lot of these people will migrate to parties whose social and economic positions they are closer to. There is no way an overwhelming majority of NI nationalists are hardline lefties. A UI will ironically damage SF.

  • Trasna

    If a unity referendum is won, it’s won. There will no joining the commonwealth, besides, will there even be a commonwealth? There will be no appeasments as that just brings the past into the future. How on earth do you expect well over 5 million people to make any acknowledgment to a foreign head of state.

    Bonkers.

  • mjh

    Perversely the loss of their Westminster seats, although a body-blow, is actually an opportunity for the SDLP.

    As long as they held those seats, against the arithmetical reality of being a long distant second behind SF for nationalist votes, they were obliged to go on thinking of themselves as being a challenger for primacy within nationalism. No longer.

    They are now free to develop a role and a strategy appropriate to their size. And many a declining organisation has found that an existential crisis frees it up to consider the previously unthinkable and gain acceptance for previously controversial changes.

    While urgency is vital, the most important thing is to take the time necessary to examine options and build consensus around a decision.

    The first thing to remember is that the voting system virtually guarantees a role for a secondary nationalist and a secondary unionist party. Even in their pomp, last week neither the DUP nor SF quite achieved three-quarters of votes of their respective designations. In 5 seater Stormont seats that means that the secondary party can expect to pick up an absolute minimum of 6 or 7 seats. Westminster elections tend to favour the largest party in a designation, yet even on last Thursday’s vote the SDLP would have elected 8 to 10 MLA’s.

    And in Council elections where there are often 6 or even 7 seats per Electoral Area the prospects for secondary parties are correspondingly higher.

    So, if it wants to do so, there is no reason why the SDLP should not play a part in politics for many years to come.

    Organisationally its options are:

    1) Combine with a southern party in some form. This would be dependent on the willingness of the favoured southern party. It might lead to defections by those who are unhappy with the choice. It is also not a given that this would present the voters with a more defined role for the party. In many ways a southern hook-up would not be the answer for the party, merely the beginning of a new set of questions.

    2) Soldier on as before. This is not unfeasible. It could preserve party unity. But it would not address activist demotivation and lack of voter enthusiasm, and would probably sentence the party to even poorer results at the next council and Assembly elections.

    3) Reinvent. At present the party’s role appears to be to offer nationalists an option untainted by association with the IRA. That has the twin disadvantage of being a negative rather than a positive message, and of declining relevance as SF replaces older personnel and increasing numbers of voters have no personal recollections of the troubles.

    It could set out to develop a distinctive role within nationalism which is currently unoccupied. The implicit strategy of SF is to await an anticipated demographic shift which they believe will produce a catholic and nationalist majority in a border poll. The SDLP could rename itself the New Ireland Party. It could aggressively challenge the demographic strategy – offering an alternative strategy based on gaining agreement from current non-nationalists and setting out a positive vision of the new Ireland.

    Alternatively it could go for a full-blooded Labour positioning, in which nationalism of both the British and Irish varieties was excluded through equal association with both the UK and Irish Labour parties.

    There may well be other options – now is the time for the party to consult and explore.

  • BERZERKERMG

    They could go down the climate change denial/creationist route. Seems to be plenty of votes in that.

  • Paul Culloty

    Re Southern Protestants – vast majority are FG voters, as economically conservative but socially liberal, certainly no affinity with DUP. As for SDLP, they already attend Irish Labour annual conferences, so that party would seem a more suitable merger candidate than FF.

  • aquifer

    1) Combine with a southern party in some form.

    Brilliant, to spot that there is a choice. Why join with a party of separatist revolutions gone rotten, Fianna Fail, when they could join with a party that accepted an ongoing relationship with Britain before, and could again. Fine Gael is more aligned with the economic interests of SDLP voters, and would be more acceptable to Unionists as a vehicle to get to an agreed island.

    Labour is largely a party of public sector unions with middle class support, and might do, but are the SDLP really socialists or actually Christian Democrats who want to own their own house and car?

  • Sprite

    why would there be a unionist party in a UI created through peaceable consent? I suppose there may be an Ulster/Scots/Protestant separatist party or movement arguing for repartition or joint authorirty for the north east.

    Where the Ulster Protestant vote might go after a UI is an interesting question. Looking at the current state of Irish politics might it go towards FG?

  • 1729torus

    Your comment about SF passively waiting for demographics to shift is empirically untrue. They invited prominent Unionists like Alex Kane to speak at their conference. Sticking to your ideology does not mean you aren’t making an effort to sell it as broadly possible or get feedback from sceptics. SF clearly have an ambition to be a party for all of Ireland, including Larne and coleraine.

    A Belfast Telegraph poll from 2013 said that 4.4% of their votes come from Protestants, the DUP only got 1.5% of their vote from Catholics. This 4.4% roughly translates into 2.5% of all Protestant voters.

    As SF build up east of the Bann; the older IRA generation leaves the stage (especially Gerry Kelly); NI Labour fails to field candidates; a younger generation that can’t remember the IRA comes of age; and Unionism consolidates around the DUP, the number of such voters will continue to increase. They will likely never get more than 2-5% of the Protestant vote over the next decade, but that’s respectable given how hardline they are.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    If it’s antipartitionist it’s not vanilla.

  • the Moor

    & if it’s partitionist it’s not Labour …

  • Andrew Gallagher

    Maybe not by your standards, but there are plenty who would disagree. For those who see partition as the font of all politics, nothing that avoids taking a principled position on it will ever be legitimate. But not everyone thinks that politics begins and ends with the border, and those people need a voice also.

  • the Moor

    My standards aren’t really the issue and while there are some who disagree with zero-sum critique, ‘plenty’, on the historical evidence, I would have to dispute. The British Labour Party has formally supported the cause of a united Ireland since 1913 and shows no signs of revising its stance. An NI-only (aka partitionist) Labour party is a non-starter because there is no electoral space for it to grow into. The protestant masses (who don’t share your uninterest in the border) prefer unionism and their catholic counterparts prefer republicanism over the constitutional (vanilla) nationalism of the SDLP. An NI Labour Party (to float a possible name), appealing only to middle class electors will fair little better than previous attempts to mine the narrow seam of liberal-social democratic unionism. Am sure you’re right that ‘not everyone thinks that politics begins and ends with the border’, however, this ‘principled position’, as you describe – meaning having no public position, being neutral or not saying – amounts whether you like it or not to a defacto unionism which serves only to underline the preeminent importance of the unresolved matter of the partitioning of the island against the will of the vast majority of Irish people who do care and do wish to see the historical injustice corrected.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    having no public position, being neutral or not saying – amounts, whether you like it or not, to a defacto unionism

    And there are plenty of other people who believe that it amounts, whether you like it or not, to crypto-republicanism.

    the preeminent importance of the unresolved matter of the partitioning of the island against the will of the vast majority of Irish people who do care and do wish to see the historical injustice corrected.

    And so long as that unresolved, and unresolvable, issue remains at the forefront of politics, we have deadlock.

  • the Moor

    There’s nothing crypto about the basis of critique I’m putting forward. The position is fully transparent and declared. NI is an interim state. What you describe as ‘deadlock’ I’ve called zero-sum. We’re agreed therefore that there can be no meaningful advance until this proverbial elephant in the room has been acknowledged and acceded to.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    There’s nothing crypto about the basis of critique I’m putting forward. The position is fully transparent and declared.

    Nobody was calling *your* argument crypto-republicanism.

    NI is an interim state.

    Everything is interim, but most things that are designed to be interim survive longer than intended. Even after a border poll, don’t expect that NI will simply vanish. The modern counties in Ireland still follow (to various extents) the outlines of pre-Norman petty kingdoms.

    We’re agreed therefore that there can be no meaningful advance until this proverbial elephant in the room has been acknowledged and acceded to.

    No, we’re not agreed. My argument is that there can be no meaningful advance while fixing the unfixable remains a precondition for action in unrelated matters.

  • the Moor

    Your position, on the evidence provided, is a defacto unionist case. Fair enough. What you appear unwilling to acknowledge is that a stance of the kind you’re putting forward, favouring the status quo, is a contribution on the antipartitionist side of the great divide that defines politics in Ireland. Your position simply isn’t neutral and there are no ‘unrelated matters’. Though you may elect to abstain or spoil your vote in the eventual rereferendum, there won’t be a third option on the ballot paper.

    I share your frustration that the zero-sum has the effect of occluding the formation or emergence of nonsectarian politics. Regrettably the preeminence of the unhealed scar of partition tends to spill over into civil society as well. But the zero-sum realpotitik is a result of what bible-believing christians call original sin and that ‘sin’ is partition. Or in your terms, the problem is partition and it can be fixed. Closing your ears or your eyes to the source of the problem seems to me not a settled position.

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  • Andrew Gallagher

    Your position, on the evidence provided, is a defacto unionist case.

    No. Your flat insistence that anyone who is not a nationalist is automatically a (de facto) unionist is a classic example of the false dichotomy. And as I pointed out above, there are plenty on the other side who think anyone who isn’t a unionist is automatically a (crypto) nationalist. Politics is not a zero sum game, even if lots of people believe that it is.

    Your position simply isn’t neutral and there are no ‘unrelated matters’.

    I never claimed to be neutral. And your insistence that there are no matters (none whatsoever?) that are unrelated to partiton is a scorched earth tactic that serves only to shut down debate.

    Though you may elect to abstain or spoil your vote in the eventual
    rereferendum, there won’t be a third option on the ballot paper.

    No, there won’t. But the corollary is that until such a referendum is called, there are precisely *no* options on the ballot paper that will make a blind bit of difference to the border. Those parties that pretend it will are doing so with the transparent intent of scaring the electorate back into the trenches for the sake of votes.

    Closing your ears or your eyes to the source of the problem seems to me not a settled position.

    Partition is as much a symptom of our problems as it is a cause, and it is just one part of a complex picture. Every outcome has at least two immediate causes, and each of those has at least two more, and so on ad infinitum. Simply removing one of the causes of a problem does not magically make the problem go away – if you get stabbed in the chest, the one thing you should never *ever* do is pull out the blade yourself. Why? Because the blade, even though it was the cause of your injury, is now helping to keep your blood in by stopping up the hole.

    For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

  • the Moor

    ‘Partition is as much a symptom of our problems as it is a cause, and it is just one part of a complex picture.’ No it isn’t. Whether idealism or obfucation, either way, you’re not addressing things as they really are. The contribution of the GFA (an instrument of elegant obfuscation) in our recent history is that it passified and institutionalised the terms of an elemental conflict, to be continued elsewise in the interim by peaceable means. The ‘dreary steeples’ of the Irish conflict can often appear unshifting. The intense polarity of difference and division running through our wee place hasn’t changed much in its fundamentals since 1921. What has changed in the past century are the tectonic plates of demography and, especially since 1999, the position of the British state as erstwhile guarantor of devolved unionist autonomy (and consequently the balance of power in the local polity). For every complex problem, there will naturally tend to be, complex and not so complex antidotes and solutions. However much you might wish to complicate matters in order to resist the obvious and the inevitable, ours isn’t a complex problem. Good luck though in maintaining the pretence. Maybe you’ll succeed in convincing yourself and affiliated others.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    The intense polarity of difference and division running through our wee place hasn’t changed much in its fundamentals since 1921.

    It hasn’t changed much since 1621 for that matter. This blinkered focus on partition is a distraction from the underlying fault lines in society. If a border poll were held today, Sammy would still wake up tomorrow on the other side of a security wall from Seamus, and there’s no compelling reason to believe that social division would be any less intractable once the shoe was on the other foot. Depending on the circumstances of a border poll, it’s entirely possible that attitudes might harden even further. That’s why healing division has to start now.

  • the Moor

    So you’ll heal division by ignoring it. Great. Good plan. Mine’s a pistachio.

    As a matter of interest, if as you assert, against the evidence of history and lived experience, that the commonly understood terms of Ireland’s centuries-old conflict are a ‘distraction’, what on earth are the real ‘underlying fault lines in society’ that gave rise to an existential conflict which refuses to diminish and which the rest of us apparently are misapprehending?

  • Andrew Gallagher

    So you’ll heal division by ignoring it.

    There are many different divisions, layered on top of each other in seemingly contradictory ways. Unpicking them is not as simple as winning a border poll.

    if as you assert, against the evidence of history and lived experience, that the commonly understood terms of Ireland’s centuries-old conflict are a ‘distraction’

    You know as well as I that there is no commonly held understanding of Irish history. That’s one of the problems.

    what on earth are the real ‘underlying fault lines in society’ that gave rise to an existential conflict

    What gives rise to a conflict and what sustains a conflict are two different things. What is currently sustaining the conflict is a lack of shared identity, and a lack of trust. People do not believe in a single “us”, and are mistrustful of those that fall into the category of “them”. Once you have a system where people identify more closely with the tribe than with society as a whole, every political problem becomes a tribal problem.

  • the Moor

    Each of the last three paragraphs provided in reply to my penultimate post repeats the same evasive formula running through each of your responses – ‘Sure, it’s much more complicated than that!’ (i.e., rather than addressing the point or question as asked/posed, your tactic and refrain is to obfuscate: ‘not as simple as’, ‘there is no commonly held’, ‘two different things’) – rounded off with a string of empty platitudes about us and them, topped with that slippery eel of sophitic evasion, the ‘people’ and another flip-back peroration. It’s not so far as I am concerned a meaningful exchange. At best shadow-play. Not my game. Best wishes in any event.

  • Skibo

    To have such a belief is not to fully understand Sinn Fein. They have multiple policies, a number of which have to be fulfilled for the Stormont Executive to be re-established.
    SF can not be blamed for your single minded approach to the party.

  • BERZERKERMG

    Are you saying 70 per cent of Northern nationalists are hard left? So why do SF only clock up 14 per cent of the vote in ROI where the constitutional question isn’t the defining issue? How come they haven’t eaten up FF and FG the way they have the SDLP with their many fabulous wonderful policies?

  • Tochais Siorai

    I’m convinced that a similar type of personality disorder is / was common to both of those individuals.

  • Tochais Siorai

    A regional Ulster British party which would wither away over time.

  • Skibo

    SF and SDLP are nearly inseparable in their polices so to show a stronger attitude will attract a stronger vote. As things in the North progress to parity between the two communities, fear will always bear on how people vote and the stronger vote will always prevail.
    While I am not fully conversant with politics south of the border, from what I can make out FG are an openly conservative party. FF try to show themselves off as more of a British labour type party but would be closer to the Blairite policies which are conservative with a tint of pink.
    I look at how the vote of the left has fractured after the rejection of FF following the crash and bank bailouts. People were looking for a socialist party to represent them. They turned to Labour who ended up worse than FF.
    The following election resulted in a further fracturing of the left and the rise of independents AAA and PBP but the strongest of those was SF. If thy can hold the socialist line and represent the working class vote, they will pick off a number of these smaller parties.