Following on from last week’s opening piece from Cleenish this week we will be looking at the SDLP, not for the first time either of course. This will be broken up into two parts folks with the second one scheduled for Thursday evening Australian time.
The SDLP was the respectable, moderate party of civil rights and non-violence. The party had articulate people espousing a moderate vision, of and for the future. Through Hume it transcended the narrow and short-term thinking of the time. They had a vision for a new dispensation that reflected the complex relationships of these islands and laid the foundations for the potential eventual reconciliation of the Irish people.
Through the barren years of destruction, pain and hopelessness the vision of a new dispensation became a mantra, annoying to many, but providing hope and pride to the nationalist people. A bright contrast to the dogged, no men mentality and sterile politics of unionism.
It was the SDLP that created the concept of ‘parity of esteem’, provided the architects for the GFA and helped the nationalist people of the north to feel proud and self-confident. It was the SDLP, through the selfless actions of Hume who helped Sinn Féin open the exit door and smoothed their path down a peaceful road.
All of the above is a history to be proud of is a matter of record and of history.
The hard reality for the party is that time has been and gone. The present owes the SDLP no favours, no gratitude and no future unless it is earned. It must compete for votes based on new ideas, new policies and on who best represents the nationalist people in this part of Ireland.
Any political party must exist for a purpose, not for its own sake and not just for the sake of power, but to provide leadership and to deliver for the people. It may be that the SDLP is in danger of forgetting this.
So whilst the feeling and respect lingers on, with the DNA of the party still imbued with the qualities of respect, rights and building relationships, it has yet to develop a coherent message and vision for the future. It has yet to adapt to the new and changing realities of modern Ireland. As a nationalist party the SDLP has yet to grapple with the future and it is my contention it is currently failing our people and the opportunities provided by the GFA.
However, the future has yet to be written and is full of challenges, opportunities and risks in equal measure. So what the future in store for the SDLP, an Irish regional a party, in shaping the nationalist journey? What part will the SDLP play in helping to shape the emergence of a new Irish nation?
I hope to give my take, jaundiced as they may be, on the options open to the party and from a nationalist perspective what direction I think it should be heading in. That sounds even to my ears more than a little presumptuous & big headed, (after all who am I really to say) but I’m prompted by the feeling that it is now time for the SDLP to answer some fundamental questions and to answer Ireland’s call. It is hard to shake the belief that a crossroads is fast approaching on the party’s future.
After the landmark GFA the party has given the impression of a party adrift, shorn of its purpose, unable or unwilling to chart a new course. The party appeared spent, old, disorganised with the appearance of being a collection of individuals rather than a party working towards a set of common goals, objectives and with a clearly expressed agenda. The predominance of grey heads, tired faces and old language only added to the impression of a party in decline. Though grey hair comes very early in my family so perhaps not the best point to make 😉
Many in the party responded to the fall from nationalist pole position with ill-disguised ill grace and retreated into a wounded corner where its sole purpose seemed to be simply to attack, bitch and gurn at Sinn Féin.
In recent times it seemed the party had stabilised its vote and was in the process in re-organising and building its organisation and being more corporate in outlook. It had found a voice, with a return to protecting rights and with the message ‘back to future’; on housing (eg Girdwood), parades and on social justice struck a chord with many. The youth wing of the SDLP seemed also energised and full of bright, eager individuals. There was a belief the party had stablised its position with the possibility of a positive future in the offing. All of which raised the prospect that the party could begin to look past the GFA and to consider the next phase for nationalism; developing plans and strategies for a new inclusive Irish nation.
Isn’t it strange how things turn out and how sly traps can befall the unwary.
Enter stage left the SPAD Bill and the Jim & Ann double act. For me this ‘topic’, whatever the rights and wrongs in itself, exposed a greater truth about the continued basic weaknesses with the party. The SPAD bill and victims issues amply demonstrated the party’s inability to think ahead, to plan and to prepare simple clear messages. They failed to develop a sound message that balanced and respected all of the rights involved. The intervention of Mallon & Rodgers has been unedifying and has diminished the current party leadership – as one commentator put it ‘the party was again eating itself’.
In aligning with the TUV, in indulging in rhetoric on the criminalisation of republicans and the pecking order of victims, the party have handed their opponents a political weapon that will be used to effect in working class areas of Belfast and west of the Bann. My own sense is that the impact may not be as fatal as letsgetalongerists would hope (as the demise of the SDLP is a precursor for the growth of the middle?)
There are still many nationalist people who have difficulty with Sinn Féin and the past and who emotionally & morally find it hard to vote for Sinn Féin. The SDLP still offers a respectable nationalist alternative for these voters, and whilst that effect is likely to wane with time, recent events may have bolstered that element of the vote. Currently the SDLP provides a nationalist outlet for those that may otherwise drift towards non-voting or the Alliance / NI21 utopians.
Due to SPAD the tenor of debate and relationships between the parties has suffered. The near future will now be characterised by spiteful ‘jags’ and point scoring, and it will become all too easy for debates to be emotionally charged. A point worth considering for those inclined to indulge in internal nationalist fights on the past is… who benefits most from nationalism turning in on itself? Not the nationalist people or cause I reckon.
The party will now be fighting on the basis of the past rather than the future. How can such a focus do nationalism, or the SDLP itself, any good? At best it will be self-limiting if not self-defeating for the party. The prime focus will be to concentrate on short-term issues with a consequent lack in developing a vision, strategy and pragmatic plans for Ireland or for the nationalist people of this part of the country.
Even before the recent controversy the path ahead for the SDLP was not clear. The GFA has brought inertia to the SDLP’s thinking, being centred around and referenced to the agreement. It is a limited vision bereft of any in-depth thinking. The advertised vision of the SDLP for a New Ireland appears earnest, well-meaning, if slightly of the ‘mother and apple-pie’ variety. It certainly does not enthuse nor is there any sense of practical initiatives to promote or advance such a vision. Is this really this vision that drives the SDLP? http://www.sdlp.ie/index.php/about_sdlp/our_vision/
What has been expressed is a broad simple proposal of a continued NI albeit within a United Ireland construct rather than a UK one. In this NI would be governed with all the safeguards, rights and balances currently in place. This simplistic proposal has neither been thought through from a national perspective nor promulgated with any sense of conviction. There is no view of how this proposal would work in practice; federal of confederation, 2 parliaments or 3 and so on. Is the proposal simply a means of kicking the can down the road?
All of which I find deeply disappointing, for the party of nationalist principle and architects of political futures, to fundamentally lack a proactive vision, a compelling narrative for the future combined with ill-thought out detailed proposals is a collective failure that betrays their past. It is also perhaps why they have failed to connect with the majority of nationalist voters. For Irish nationalism it is as if we have members of the team who are not really sure what the game plan is anymore, some of whom even seem uncertain what type of game they be playing, football or soccer.
As a regional party, within an Irish context, the SDLP will need to have a clear vision for the future, a series of guiding values and principles and a set of policy proposals that are both pragmatic and thought-through.
The party will need simple, clear messages that resonate and reflects the hopes, fears and aspirations of the people it seeks to represent.
As I see it the strategic options open to the party are;
- remain a regional nationalist party with broad church tendencies, a party for those who cannot support SF;
- position itself as primarily left-leaning party focussed on social justice issues, where nationalism is put onto the back back-burner for another generation to consider;
- position itself as an exclusive NI orientated left-leaning party where the post nationalism slogan is made reality, and lastly;
- to carve out a role as a left-leaning regional party, campaigning on social justice issues, being a champion and advocate for rights and actively developing and promoting a vision for a new inclusive Irish nation, acting as a catalyst for national change
Can you guess which one I favour and which I think would resonate with most nationalists? Obvious isn’t it 😉
You may or may not agree with these options and you may have differing views as to what is their best course of action; either as a party or for nationalism. The important point is that firstly the SDLP has to decide the primary direction it wants to go. This is a perquisite before considering and developing a vision and plan for the future of Ireland, north and south.