After the Stormont restart an opportunity exists for the SDLP but is far from guaranteed

Aimsigh do thobar féin, a chroí,

óir tá am an anáis romhainn amach:

Caithfear pilleadh arís ar na foinsí.

– Cathal O Searcaigh

The peace process has not been kind to the SDLP. In 1998 it had the largest popular vote in Northern Ireland, in a competitive political market. Now the party of John Hume is one of the smallest.

It has struggled to figure how its future fits with its original mission, which was to reform Northern Ireland in a centre left direction whilst trying to bring it closer to the south.

That was easy to pull off when there was no electoral competition. After the failure of the power sharing executive in 1974, it was never really tested on whether or not it could govern well.

Facing challenges on two fronts

The politics of aspiration and the politics of delivery are two different creatures. Almost as soon as the ink on the 1998 Belfast Agreement was dry, the party began to lose ground on the first to SF.

Right up to the last election in 2022 they’ve struggled to compete with a rival that offers a romantic (even if translucent) vision of a new Ireland that seems always to be on the way yet never arrives.

In 2022 they offered no competition to Sinn Féin’s prosaic appeal to help Michelle O’Neill become the first Nationalist First Minister of Northern Ireland. Nor any alternative programme of delivery.

The party has subsisted on an appeal to decent people to stick with it in spite of its obvious long term decline. Under a previous leader, Patrick Murphy described it as a comfort zone, not a political party.

Over time complacency has taken hold. Surrounded by hungry rivals, the SDLP seemed to think that success would one day return, because well, it was John Hume’s party, and, well, it just would.

Its latest decline has seen a significant part of the successor generation of middle class Catholics leaving the nationalist project altogether and putting their efforts into the Greens, PBP and Alliance.

Boycotting is a policy of self denial

Take the boycott of the Nolan Show? Now, I’m a semi regular on there and what I’ve learned is that it gets my views to parts of the Northern Ireland population that would otherwise never read Slugger.

Sinn Féin has boycotted Nolan over his coverage of Storey funeral, but with three quarters of the nationalist vote tucked ways that’s a luxury their popularity and electoral dominance affords them.

SF has aced the ground game to the point where they are now just quietly picking SDLP MLAs off slowly one by one, meaning that an air game is all they have. And yet they won’t use it.

The modern SDLP has trouble admitting this inferiority to itself, even if its voters can. In the process they’ve become accustomed to enduring loss after loss with an equanimity that’s bewildering.

In the Donegal summers of my childhood and youth, when drought struck, we’d fetch water from the neighbour’s spring well (every farm had one), as my uncle’s, being slightly higher up, ran out.

It’s as if the SDLP has not noticed that their rivals (Sinn Féin and Alliance) have been visiting their neighbour’s wells for some time, and are now more regular and better recognised there than them.

In boycotting Nolan, the SDLP has denied itself not only the chance to amplify its views as the only nationalist public voice but other positions that it might have articulated are taken by Alliance MLAs.

Can they actually lead from Opposition?

However, it now has a slim opportunity to start figuring out what it stands for in a set up where  leading the opposition is now legislated for (2016/22) comes with some privileges and rights.

For a minimum of 15 days a year, they can set opposition business. They chair the Public Accounts Committee and (because of the cock up over Finance and Personnel) and the Finance Committee.

When Ministers are questioned as leader of the opposition Matthew O’Toole gets to ask the first question. Their chairs now have the opportunity to examine and interrogate every fiscal decision.

In O’Toole they have a policy literate group leader who can hold the floor before the chamber is flooded by the larger parties which have a much wider spread of voices from across Northern Ireland.

Nor is it enough to gainsay government announcements with quasi journalistic criticism. Experience from elsewhere suggests being opposition is a grind because its real purpose is to develop alternatives.

That’s a tall order in an Assembly where even government parties are apt to take strong positions of principle until the moment the decisions to distribute Northern Ireland’s limited public cash is made.

The 2022 Act means the SDLP is in a position to exploit the strongest form of opposition since 1998. But it’s not clear that it has yet fully internalised what this means for it or its rivals in government.

Good opposition means dropping the self defeating habit of being helpful to those in power, bringing in specialists to help them understand/explain trade offs in the Executive and providing alternatives.

Opposition is a path that has to be walked

This Executive has just three years on the clock. That’s not long to get a functional operation moving, and pick a few prime fights. As the first proper opposition leader there’s no pre-tested path to success.

To be successful it must pick the right fights, but it also has to be seen and heard. Boycotts (of Nolan, the White House or indeed any media outlet) are an indulgence this now tiny party can ill afford.

If the SDLP cannot see itself in the future then the world will continue operating without it. Alternatively they can dry their eyes and articulate a better future that’s actually deliverable.

To do that they must steer and stay their own unique course and at the same time cultivate an ability to hold space with strangers turned friends, each time a new opportunity arises. And grow again.

“Wanderer, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”
— Antonio Machado

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