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Is Northern Ireland’s SDLP Here to Stay?

The SDLP served as a bridge between communities during Northern Ireland’s peace process but is now in the fight for its life, reports Emma DeSouza

Leader of the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) Colum Eastwood speaks to media at Stormont Parliament. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters/Alamy

Is Northern Ireland’s SDLP Here to Stay?

The SDLP served as a bridge between communities during Northern Ireland’s peace process but is now in the fight for its life, reports Emma DeSouza

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Over the past 12 months, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has lost both its deputy leader and a third of its parliamentary team. Consistently polling at just 7% following decades of decline, the once dominant party of John Hume is hoping for a foothold in its “new mission” to deliver a New Ireland. But is the party too close to the edge to save itself?

Colum Eastwood was made party leader in 2015. Despite becoming the youngest party leader in Northern Ireland, the political strategies and demographics driving the SDLP did not come to reflect this shift.

Eastwood said he was best placed to “reconnect with parts of the electorate that [the party] have lost, and parts of the electorate [the party] have never reached”. However, to date, the SDLP has suffered five consecutive declines in vote share under his leadership, with last year’s Northern Ireland Assembly Election culminating in the worst Assembly result in the party’s history. 

Despite faltering support, the mood at the party’s spring conference this weekend was energised, with Eastwood declaring that “the SDLP is here to stay” – a clarion call met with rapturous applause.

The party’s newly unveiled mission – to become “the movement for a New Ireland” – was clearly intended to serve as more than a slogan, with the New Ireland agenda cutting across all aspects of the conference, from a podcast with the party’s New Ireland Commission to motions including Healthcare in a New Ireland, Childcare in a New Ireland, and more. 

This mission is less ‘new’ than it is a return to historical party roots, which always aspired for the reunification of the island of Ireland by peaceful means.

The challenge will be whether the SDLP’s message will resonate with an electorate which is becoming increasingly disenfranchised and maligned from Northern politics, particularly if its movement teeters into more of a talking shop.

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The party was previously punished by the electorate for the failure of the New Ireland forum in the 1980s – the forum was a motif of Hume, but ultimately proved ineffective, paving the way for Sinn Féin in the 1985 local elections. It is a gambit, and with only six weeks before the local elections, the party has neither the time nor the space necessary to perform a 180 before another electoral blow.

For decades, John Hume’s personal popularity and the immeasurable role he played in the peace process has provided the SDLP political cover for systemic failures across all four of the principles for political success: vision, values, vehicle and votes. The SDLP has struggled to define itself in a post-conflict landscape and struggled even more to shake off a perception of still being a party for Catholic middle-class middle-aged men.

A lack of effective party structures and sufficient membership engagement means that, outside of the strongholds of Derry and South Belfast, SDLP support is dwindling and there is a clear rural-urban divide that can only be addressed with greater levels of engagement and clear communication.

In August, the party announced that it would be modernising its structures but, aside from removing the position of deputy leader and appointing a new director of policy, there’s been little change.

At its peak, the SDLP commanded more than 70% of the nationalist vote share while, at present, Sinn Féin commands a similar figure. This tidal shift can be attributed to several factors on the part of Sinn Féin, including slick PR and communications, clear succession-planning with up-and-coming political leaders, and remaining the only all-island nationalist party. 

The SDLP may not have the same resources, but beginning to build the infrastructure necessary to run candidates on an all-island basis in the future would place it on more even ground.

The party previously attached itself to the Republic’s Fianna Fáil Party, perceived as one of Ireland’s more conservative stalwarts. This failed partnership was a considerable mistake for the SDLP and rumours continue to circulate that the party is fishing for a new southern partner but trying to cling to the coat-tails of any other party rather than standing on its own will always appear as weakness to the electorate, no matter how much Eastwood tries to frame it as a strength.

The SDLP faces a further threat from Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party, which is fast becoming a political home for Northern Ireland’s so-called middle ground and is now the third-largest party with 17 MLAs.

Alliance is well-positioned as an alternative to ‘green and orange politics’ and has proven increasingly popular with younger demographics that want to see policy debates rather than constitutional ones, as well as for disenfranchised SDLP voters who won’t vote for Sinn Féin. All four SDLP seats lost in last year’s election were Alliance Party gains.

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Throughout the SDLP conference, it was evident that the party is pivoting to target Alliance voters by poking holes in the party’s non-position on the constitutional question.

“[The Alliance Party] say they’re European,” said Eastwood, “they’re progressive, that they believe in young people, but they’ve no view on how we get back into the European Union… That’s going to be a political problem for them… Anyone serious about re-joining the European Union can’t sit this one out.”

This is an astute strategy, as the SDLP has the potential to reach communities that Sinn Féin simply cannot and there is a contradiction in the Alliance Party’s European position. Northern Ireland voted remain and so framing the debate as a return to the EU will invariably appeal to more than just traditional nationalists. 

There can be little question that Brexit has sped up the process on independence movements across the UK and Ireland, as socially progressive people search for an exit-door from an increasingly isolationist Britain.

On the island of Ireland, the prospect of a border poll has become part of daily discourse. Debates take place on primetime TV, universities across the island are undertaking research, the Seanad (Ireland’s second chamber) is currently holding an enquiry on constitutional change. The rate at which this conversation continues to evolve is accelerating and, once the prospect of change begins to take hold in wider social circles, the momentum won’t be easily abated. The movement will have to run its course towards an inevitable vote.

As a party, the SDLP was the driving force for the Good Friday Agreement, serving as a bridge between communities and building ardour for a peaceful resolution. It will no doubt be hoping to recreate a need for its existence in building a similar movement for a United Ireland. But it would be doing so from a far more diminished position.

Lest we forget, the Nationalist Party of the 1960s disbanded on 7%. The SDLP is in a fight for its life and, despite the sense of empowered defiance felt in the room during its conference, should polls prove accurate and it does in fact suffer further losses at the local elections in May, a different kind of momentum could take hold – one which the party is unlikely to survive.

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