On Saturday 24th January, Mark Durkan, SDLP leader, addressed his party faithful at their annual conference. After watching his speech, I “wrote a letter” to him. Will he read it? Would he ever consider or has he already thought about what I suggest? We shall see.
All the people I have met, that have had dealings with you, have never hesitated to tell me that you are a gentleman and a decent man. I have no doubt that is absolutely true. However, you are in charge of a political party which badly needs some direction and leadership. Unfortunately, when you gave your speech on Saturday, you did not provide that.
Just over a year ago, when your party had its previous conference, you looked set to join Fianna Fáil in a newly rebranded all-Ireland nationalist party. Fianna Fail’s plan to join up with your party is all but dead and the SDLP now looks like a “rudderless ship”.
I believe that joining Fianna Fáil would have been a serious mistake. In time to come, you may be glad that the merger did not happen. After all, Fianna Fáil is very much a conservative party. Your party is a socialist party. If you had got together, you would have looked like “chalk and cheese”. Yes, you might have eventually outmuscled Sinn Féin but you were only going to be competing for Catholic votes. The only success you could ever have achieved would have been to perpetuate tribal politics.
You see, tribal politics is bad for Northern Ireland. The hidden cost to the taxpayer runs into billions and leaves little inspiration for a society to ever be at ease with itself. You may also wish to reflect on remarks made years ago by your former leader, John Hume, who indicated that Ireland could never be united until Northern Ireland was united with itself. Do you not think that it should be an objective of your party to help communities to come together? I’m afraid you can’t do that if you represent people from just one and not the other.
And don’t think you have only Sinn Féin to worry about. You see, once we get momentum behind our project, you will start to lose a substantial number of Catholic voters to us. You might like to reflect that many of those who support academic selection are likely to do that. This is only the start. There are many other policies which we have which will be very attractive to many of the voters who previously supported you.
Of course, it is not for me to tell you what to do. After all, I am just a humble Conservative Party activist. That said, it does seem that there is a way forward for your party to survive and flourish. It would be of great service to Northern Ireland if you did this thing that I am going to ask of you.
I know that your party already has close links with the British Labour Party. I know that when you find the time to visit the House of Commons and take up your seats, you and your fellow SDLP MPs sit on the Labour benches and you vote on their side almost all of the time.
There is still a wonderful opportunity for you and your party, if you can see the light. Of course, you will lose Catholic Conservative support but you would lose that anyway. On the other hand, if you work hard, pursue a purely left of centre line and mothball your Nationalist objects at elections, you will pick up votes from the Protestant community. You can even do that without ceasing to be a Nationalist Party.
All you have to do is reach a formal agreement with the British Labour Party to represent them cross-community in Northern Ireland for all elections until such time as there is a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland.
I hope you will do me the honour of considering this proposal for the greater good of the people of Northern Ireland