“Somewhere along the course of the road our conversations have drifted. They’ve centred too much on us as a party and not enough on the fate and future of the country. That stops here and now.
Colum Eastwood’s first address to party members as leader remains, I believe, one of the most consequential from an SDLP Leader in over a decade. After winning a decisive victory over Alasdair McDonnell, it set the right tone for a party which had suffered consecutive losses in elections since 1998. The next phase should have been about bringing his politics to people, a marked change from the pained introspection that dominated internal and external commentary about the party.
And it’s right to give Eastwood credit for his early leadership. He took back an Assembly seat from Sinn Féin for the first time in the party’s history. He led the SDLP to its first proportional gain in Assembly representation since 1998. He had, by all accounts, steadied a ship which had been caught in stormy waters for too long.
But in the middle of a period of transition, the party has struggled to maintain that momentum through seismic shifts in the political landscape. The RHI scandal, the collapse of the institutions, the Brexit crisis, the death of Martin McGuinness (seen by many within nationalism as a successor to Hume) and, ultimately, the loss of the party’s 3 MPs.
A crisis for this island and a crisis for the SDLP coalesced at around the same point. And that has become an adapt or die moment for the party. In the middle of a radically developing political environment where the stage has shifted from relationships at Stormont to relationships between Dublin, London and Brussels (where the SDLP is voiceless), it’s appropriate that a period of reflection followed. That period has been, in my opinion, too long and has added to the malaise afflicting the party and its members. But it’s now emerging with a proposal for a new political project.
An SDLP/Fianna Fail merger has been mooted for over 15 years. It is a source of immense sensitivity and furious debate, certainly within the former. And you can see why – these are two parties with notionally different values and traditions. And if you consider the SDLP a part of a social democratic movement in Ireland, then those values and traditions are fundamentally incompatible.
But the truth is, the SDLP has not been an ideologically pure social democratic party for a long time. Its struggle to reach a position on women’s reproductive rights and marriage equality are pointed examples. Beyond its inception, it evolved to become a group of people with wildly different political views coming together to oppose violence. When that violence ended, it remained a group of people with very different political views but who each had come to think of the party as their own. And that remains one of the existential challenges it faces – every member of the SDLP believes the party represents their political philosophy and that those who disagree should be somewhere else. In the absence of an overarching objective, or clear political trajectory, those tensions have become more pronounced.
Eastwood and Martin, to their credit and in spite of the flaws in handling the process, are now attempting to give shape to a new project that reflects the challenges facing Ireland. With the crisis of Brexit and a new discussion about the future constitutional shape of this place, that project must face both sides of the island. It should be grounded in the view that we need to replace the conflicts of identity with a battles for ideas, a view that constitutional aspiration should be a demographic of belief, not of birth. In that respect, the SDLP and Fianna Fail are a more natural fit. Both parties of strong historic thought leadership within nationalism, a traditional base in rural Ireland with modernising elements in urban centres and both have, belatedly, began eroding an immense social conservatism. They will, however, need a significant programme of policy engagement and cooperation to strengthen a shared platform.
I haven’t seen the proposals yet, but I’m glad to hear reports that this will be a process of evolution rather than revolution. Two parties of the complexity, history and character of the SDLP and Fianna Fail couldn’t possibly merge overnight. It wouldn’t do justice to their respective legacies and it wouldn’t be an authentic coming together of their memberships. But I do believe that the end point, however long it takes, must be a single all-island political entity shaped by the best politics and people of both parties. This can be an exciting new project, the days and weeks ahead will determine the breadth of opportunity.
Martin McAuley is a former Press Officer for the SDLP
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.