The SDLP leadership election is an exceptionally important one from the point of view of the future direction of Northern Ireland Politics
Liam Clarke’s article in today’s Sunday Times sets out the background and the backdrop. Few would disagree that since John Hume handed over the leadership of the party to Mark Durkan, the latter has been able to prevent the Sinn Fein “cuckoo” from starving the SDLP of voters who would normally be expected to vote for them.
As well as being ‘cuckooed’ the SDLP, has have been out-spent, out-organised, out-marketed and out-rhetoricised by Sinn Fein in all of the elections from 2001 to 2007. Supporters of the SDLP had hoped that following a term in office, where Sinn Fein’s political shortcomings were laid bare for all to see, that they would see a revival in their fortunes. That did not happen in the 2009 euro elections. The only ‘crumb’ you could give to the SDLP is that the decline in their vote share may have been arrested.
I say ‘may’ because I am not sure about that at all. During the Euro elections, Sinn Fein were not ‘firing on all cylinders’ knowing that Barbara de Brun’s election as a Euro MP was a banker and concentrating their resources on trying to get an MEP elected in a ROI constituency. The SDLP put up an able and respected candidate in Alban McGuinness. Alas, all they were able to achieve was an increase of 0.3% of their share of the vote.
I have said previously on this blog site that Catholic voters who by their nature share core Conservative values are the target of future Conservative election campaigns in Northern Ireland. Almost certainly, most of those voters habitually support the SDLP. Earlier this year, Mark Durkan alienated some of those supporters over his remarks on academic selection.
However much commentators will today ridicule any notion that the Conservatives in Alliance with the UUP can win the support of Catholic voters, make no mistake about one thing. Those voters are on the Conservative menu. The trouble is, with the exception of those few with a lot of political foresight, it is probably too early to expect members of the SDLP to see the Conservatives as a threat. That is unfortunate because it does mean that the SDLP are more likely to continue looking at Sinn Fein to see if there is a way they can win back previous support.
I do not believe the SDLP can ever ‘out-nationalist’ Sinn Fein. There are signs that the SDLP have been thrashing around looking for ways to achieve this. For example, they produced their own draft Irish Language Act. It was an extremely Nationalist document which went way beyond what was likely to have been negotiated at St. Andrews. Another ploy the SDLP have tried over many years is to ‘out-moralise’ Sinn Fein by reminding the electorate that they do not carry the baggage of violence that is so closely associated with Sinn Fein’s past. It may be that the supporters they have left will never vote for Sinn Fein for that very reason. However, as a populist trick to win back previous voters, it will never work.
Most commentators, including Liam Clarke, have pointed out that of the two candidates on offer, neither of them have the charisma to “light bonfires” in the minds of the voters. So where does the SDLP go from here?
In his interview with the BBC, former leader Seamus Mallon talks about the need for ideology. I believe that he is talking about non-nationalist ideology, particularly since he expressed the need for all Northern Ireland parties to do something similar.
In my opinion, there is only one direction in which the SDLP can go to avoid medium term political extinction. I have already summarised this in a comment on Slugger at this thread comment No. 35. I repeat what I have said here:
“Firstly, the SDLP should make social democracy its dominant working ideology and “park” its Nationalist ideology. In other words, it would only need to draw on its Nationalist ideology if there was a referendum on a united Ireland. In a sense, that is a mirror image of what the Conservatives want to do with the UUP – to make Conservativism the dominant ideology and “park” unionism.
Keeping Unionism and Nationalism out of election politics can be done with the overwhelming majority of day-to-day political issues. There are some political issues that are not. That brings me to the second strand of the proposed solution. ….. It is that those parties who want to take sectarianism from politics come together and set up a joint committee. The task of that committee would be to negotiate a way forward on the basis of consensus. Each party involved in these talks would have to agree to certain ethics. Those might be (a) to vigorously look for solutions which are in the best interest of NI as a whole and not just one section of it (b) that no any elected member of any political party involved makes a public statement of their personal point of view (c) That no public statements are made about the work of that committee except jointly agreed statements. An agreement of this kind would require parties to discipline their members when making public statements on certain topics such as parades.
Most of the kind of issues that I am talking about here are likely to be cultural issues. For example, I think it is entirely possible for such a joint committee to agree a way forward for the Irish Language.
The task of breaking the sectarian mould for either UCUNF or the SDLP does not end there. The parties still have to develop trust with those voters that they are asking to cross the sectarian divide. That leads me to the third strand.
An open Alliance with the UK Labour Party running along similar lines to the UCU-NF pact would not just give all NI voters the opportunity to vote Labour on Westminster issues. That would swing the door wide open to would be protestant labour voters.
What would hold the SDLP back from such a course? I think it is something to do with the view they take of Sinn Fein as their competition. If they did pursue the path I have suggested, who is to say that they will not do Sinn Fein a lot of damage”
As readers will observe from this comment, there is a recognition from this proposal that a joint or multilateral party effort to take sectarianism out of Northern Ireland politics is more likely to succeed than if only one party is trying to achieve it. Furthermore, I believe that a similar initiative will happen. It is a question of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’.
I understand that this election is not likely to happen until their party conference in February. In all sincerity, I hope that that SDLP membership ‘graspes the nettle’ and uses the time to develop this theme for its sake and for the sake of Northern Ireland.
Filed under: Alasdair McDonnell, Conservative Party, Culture, Ideology, Labour Party, Margaret Ritchie, Mark Durkan, Nationalism, SDLP, sectarianism, socialism, Unionism, UUP | Tagged: Alasdair McDonnell, Conservative Party, Culture, Ideology, Labour Party, Margaret Ritchie, Mark Durkan, Nationalism, Normal Politics, Northern Ireland politics, SDLP, sectarianism, Sinn Fein, socialism, Tory-UUP linkup, Unionism, UUP | 11 Comments »