A Fianna Fáil partnership offers the only hope for a return to relevance for the SDLP

Yesterday, the SDLP took the first concrete step towards a merger with Fianna Fáil and a future in all-Ireland politics. It was not a decision taken lightly, and the public bickering between opposing factions before and after the conference indicates that the road taken by the Eastwood-Mallon leadership is one that will see the party lose a number of its elected representatives and members along the way.

For the record, the party leadership has been at pains to state that the partnership will not lead to the demise of the SDLP name and is not, at this point, a merger.

Yet the logical outcome of a burgeoning partnership between the party and Fianna Fáil is an amalgamation under the name and identity of the most successful political party in the history of the independent Irish state.

By every measure, the SDLP has been a party on the decline since the beginning of this century, when Sinn Féin first managed to surpass the SDLP to become nationalism’s pre-eminent voice in the north.

SDLP Electoral Performances: 2001-2017

  Votes % Votes Seats     Votes % Votes Seats
2017W 95,419 11.7%   2010W 110,970 16.5% 3
2017A 95,958 11.9% 12   2009E 78,489 16.2%
2016A 83,368 12.0% 12   2007A 105,164 15.2% 16
2015W 99,809 13.9% 3   2005W 125,626 17.5% 3
2014E 81,594 13.0%   2005LG 121,991 17% 101
2014LG 84,827 13.5% 66   2004E 87,559 15.9%
2011A 94,286 14.2% 14   2003A 117,547 17% 18
2011LG 99,325 15% 87   2001W 169,865 21% 3

From 2001 to 2017, the party lost some 44% of its vote, as well as its representation in Westminster, collapsing from a position of securing more than one-fifth of votes in the state to just over one-tenth. Not since 2010 has the party managed to secure 100,000 first preference votes at any election, and the vote share has steadily declined throughout the past decade to a point that has meant that, today, there are less than 80 elected SDLP representatives in total to the institutions in which the party has sought representation through election.

The decision to seek an alternative strategy to build the party’s political profile and electoral support has been taken due to the sheer weight of evidence indicating that a drastic change of direction was required to stop the rot.

In one sense, the SDLP today is where Sinn Féin was in 1994 when the IRA ceasefire was called. At that time, Sinn Féin had bottomed out electorally, losing its solitary Westminster seat in 1992 to the SDLP’s Joe Hendron and performing poorly in the subsequent European election campaign of 1994, mustering less than 10% between its three candidates. The Local Government election that had taken place in the interim (1993) had witnessed a marginal increase in votes and representation for the Republican party, but the SDLP’s position as the majority nationalist party was once again confirmed as they secured more than double the number of votes and seats of their Sinn Fein counterparts.

Within eight years, all that was to change, as the ceasefire and years of protracted political negotiations firmly propelled Sinn Féin to the position of the party of choice for most nationalists in the north.

The decision to enter into a partnership with Fianna Fáil will not register in the history books as one of similar significance to the ceasefires of 1994, but nevertheless it signals a leadership determination to counter Sinn Féin’s all-Ireland strategy by effectively devising one of their own.

The challenge now for Colum Eastwood and Nichola Mallon is to relentlessly pursue this vision, with tangible policies flowing that can be readily identified as such by the electorate.

This will not be easy, and there are a number of formidable challenges in the short term that must be overcome.

The partnership can only succeed if there is the same willingness at Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil’s end to allocate time, personnel and resources to make it work. This is very much an unknown factor at this time, and the suspicion remains that Martin’s party are interested in merely equipping themselves with a superficial alliance to counter Sinn Féin’s all-Ireland politics, remaining half-hearted in their desire to truly enter all-Ireland politics with all the additional complications that brings. Eastwood must ensure that Martin is all-in on this, or it could fall apart quicker than the much maligned UCUNF project.

The second challenge facing the SDLP leadership is to stay the course in spite of the choppy waters that lie ahead in the short term. This was very much on Colum Eastwood’s mind yesterday when he said the following:

“We are not talking about building for the next election, we are talking about building for the next generation.”

That reference to the next election was a deliberate one as the party leadership must be conscious of the fact that the mood music within nationalism remains one firmly supportive of Sinn Féin’s current positioning on Stormont and Brexit, something likely to translate into further electoral gains for the larger nationalist party and another difficult electoral outing for the SDLP in May’s local government contests.

The short term is likely to continue to see SDLP figures at loggerheads over the new direction, with resignations and possibly suspensions resulting.

Somewhat surprisingly, the constituency of South Belfast has stood apart as the rebel constituency in recent days, with the party’s one-time MP and former leader, Alasdair McDonnell, joining the prominent MLA Claire Hanna and her 2017 constituency running mate, Naomh Gallagher, in publicly criticizing the party leadership’s decision to pursue the Fianna Fail partnership (Gallagher labelled it “a kneejerk display of nationalism” in a Slugger opinion piece last week).

Hanna declared on BBC’s The View programme this week that she would never be a Fianna Fáil MLA, and has seemingly removed the reference to herself as an SDLP MLA on her Twitter account, a move likely to further fuel speculation that she is on the road to resigning from the party at some point.

McDonnell appeared on Sunday Politics today to criticise the Fianna Fail partnership and made a point of attending and speaking at a Young Fine Gael conference yesterday, a calculated insult to both his party leadership and their new partners in Fianna Fáil.

The irony of all this is that South Belfast delivered the solitary electoral advance for the party during the lean years from 2001 onwards. Whilst the SDLP were shedding votes and losing seats across the north, it was in South Belfast that Alasdair McDonnell made a significant breakthrough in 2005 when he seized the Westminster seat, successfully holding it for two further contests.

The loss of this seat in the 2017 Westminster election, when it was patently obvious that the SDLP incumbent stood as the only candidate capable of denying the DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly from taking the seat, only served to underline how low the party had sunk in terms of popular appeal.

As things stand today, South Belfast is the new North Belfast, and the field has been cleared for a Finucane-style candidate for Sinn Féin to mount a direct challenge to Pengelly, something that will further erode the SDLP vote in what was for years a strong constituency.

Ultimately, the SDLP leadership of Eastwood and Mallon will be judged by the progress of this new initiative. Failure will likely lead to a further decline towards single figure representation in the Assembly, awaiting the arrival of another southern-based party to hitch whatever wagons remain at that point. If it succeeds- and let’s be clear, that will inevitably entail a full merger- they will have significantly contributed towards the development of all-Ireland politics and reversed their electoral fortunes on the way.

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