For Northern Ireland’s sake a new generation SDLP must break free of its own reasonable fears

One of the problems with setting the kind of veil of secrecy around a big political deal like the one recently concluded by Colum Eastwood and Micheál Martin is that you leave a lot of people out of the loop.  Some of those are the Irish Labour-leaning folk we know about.

But in fact, even Alban Maguinness who is readily identified on the socially conservative wing of the party has written a highly critical Op-Ed in the Belfast Telegraph. In Maguinness’ case, his criticism is more based on a reading of historical diverges.

But it is probably as much about what Alban thinks is about to be lost in terms of relations with other parties that exercise his arguments:

Accepting that we live in a rapidly changing political climate and that the SDLP needs to have a strategic role at the heart of Irish politics, why not partner with all the parties together in building a powerful joint-policy platform that prepares for the post-Brexit era and puts in place ideas that prepare this island for some form of political unity in the future? We know that we are in a period of ferment and change (not just due to Brexit) and that politics in Ireland will not stand still. [Emphasis added]

This is the historic pattern. But it’s also the all-things-to-all-men comfort zone through which the party decline from the undisputed leaders of nationalism to the ones everyone is nice to in the Dáil Bar, but whom few seek out for an authority on NI’s future.

In the parable of the talents, they are the servants who took the master’s talent and buried it in the ground. An all-pervading fear of a diminishing future has seen the party’s fortunes decline to the point where it holds no seats in West Belfast, where once it had the MP.

The first party leader even to see a partial recovery was Colum Eastwood. That was in the Assembly elections of March 2017 (the elections to nowhere). That was a mixture of planning, some discipline and a large dollop of (unreciprocated) generosity from Mike Nesbitt.

Alban claims, with some justification, that..

The SDLP is currently becalmed in the electoral doldrums, largely not of its own making, but through the development of a deeply polarised electorate that has evolved since the Good Friday Agreement, with one community fearful of the other, leading to a bleak sectarian deadlock at Stormont. The SDLP is a prisoner of that sectarianism and, for the moment, cannot escape that ugly reality.  [Emphasis added]

Herein he defines the very problem that has held the party back for twenty years. In order to escape that ever declining orbit, it must find very something different to do. Repeating the patterns of the past, comforting as they might be, ensures decline.

Although the SDLP has been formally associated with Labour since the start it never stopped SDLP activists heading south to canvass for extended family in whichever southern tribe they were committed. Nothing fatal, but it betokens a certain lack of shared purpose.

If anything his most concerns revolved around the likely effects on its own voters of this arrangement and the effect of any more formal relationship with a southern party like Fianna Fáil will have on unionists.

He argues that not only will SDLP voters be confused with any link up, “the unionist community, will be apprehensive about any alignment with Fianna Fáil”. In the first case, since no change is being advocated (in the short term at least) the brand remains the same.

Unionists I speak to do have their concerns, about a southern party coming north but many are not only relaxed but are eager for some new form of nationalist leadership that is happy to uphold equality under the law, and doesm’t axiomatically hold them beneath contempt.

Alban also seems to miss that in June 2017 unionist voters gave up on the SDLP and/or were no longer sufficiently afraid of seeing abstentionist Sinn Féin MPs elected to lift a finger to prevent the disastrous (in the face of Brexit) loss of MPs who needed unionist support.

In fact, there is still a resonant space for cross-community co-operation and action. There’s no real reason why the SDLP, which in many places sits easily in that sort of space (although in others not), could not have done so unaided. But in reality they haven’t.

Tensions within the party is a sign of passion and that there’s still life in the old dog yet. Indeed Colum Eastwood’s reference to wanting to shape the future of an inclusive Northern Ireland applies equally to his party.

To re-iterate, this is not a merger. Nor is it a remotely controlled operation from the south. That option has been tested to [the] destruction [of Northern Ireland’s democracy? – Ed] by Sinn Féin. Indeed, large scale cross-jurisdictional parties are probably unsustainable.

Those who stay have an opportunity to re-work the future in line with the Belfast Agreement. Most of the issues Alban raises are reasonable fears. But the party has been caged by its fears for twenty years. And that’s been a disaster for everyone else in Northern Ireland.

It’s this cross-cutting issue that delegates to their special conference should remind themselves of before entering the hall next month.

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