Gareth Brown is a third generation SDLP member, former staffer, and a political consultant/commentator based in Edinburgh.
SDLP members will vote on a proposed new partnership with Fianna Fáil at a Special Conference this weekend in Newry. The fundamental questions though are whether it’s good for Irish politics, North and South, and whether it will actually work electorally.
For the SDLP, the rationale for the proposal comprises two categories of thought: firstly, that the party’s nationalist credentials are weakened by its lack of all-Ireland presence; and secondly, that its electoral challenges necessitate this change as a platform to challenge Sinn Féin.
There has been a lot of commentary on the role of John Hume within this debate, for obvious reasons. However, a closer examination of Hume’s politics actually demonstrates quite clearly why this exclusive partnership is a step backwards.
Hume’s doctrine was predicated on the need for a brand of nationalism for which unionists and other non-nationalists could respect and trust – a politics forged in the principle of consent and self-determination, free of the shackles of political expediency of elections in the South.
For Hume, this autonomy, bolstered by relationships with all the Southern parties, was crucial because it gave others the confidence in the integrity of his commitment to making the North work.
If you can avoid tripping over the tumbleweed at Stormont, it’s not difficult to see that things are not going very well just now. The problem in the North hasn’t changed, and although the solution – power-sharing – remains the same, it has yet to be meaningfully implemented.
A basic grasp of Irish history will tell you that it is difficult to see how Fianna Fáil, and the SDLP formally and exclusively associated with it, is the solution here.
For a start, Fianna Fáil deliberately sought to manipulate the outcomes of the New Ireland Forum – Hume’s flagship initiative – and went on to oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement. To make any real progress in terms of reconciliation, you have to make the North work.
This clearly involves building meaningful relationships with non-nationalists and unionists which is undermined when you have one political eye on Belfast and the other on Dublin.
The next question is whether it could actually work electorally. For many members, this seems like a solution to electoral decline – a way to challenge the rise of Sinn Féin. But in any walk of life, it’s difficult to develop an effective solution to a problem you don’t fully understand.
The popular explanation is that all the SDLP voters abandoned the party for Sinn Féin. The evidence doesn’t support this as the primary factor – the SDLP’s historically loyal but ageing vote literally died and its lack of professional political infrastructure means it struggles to get its vote out.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin professionalised its campaigning and became more palatable to younger voters. In the last Assembly election, just over 25% of the total electorate voted for nationalist parties, and fewer than one in five voted for Sinn Féin.
If the one in five voters for whom Irish reunification is very important is already voting, and voting Sinn Féin, it begs a question of a strategy to win them over at the expense of other growth areas and at the risk of losing a huge chunk of your current voters to the Alliance Party.
Many supporters of the proposal have been asking for the alternative.
Notwithstanding the odd state of affairs whereby the burden of proof falls on those not proposing such an existential change, is it not possible that the issue is not with the politics, but rather the implementation strategy, the message and the target audience?
Perhaps asking some honest questions about how the party has gone about delivering its vision, and a developing an evidence-supported strategy to do so more effectively may prove a viable alternative.
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