SDLP falling into irrelevance in absence of Assembly

Party that played key role in Belfast Agreement suffering from ‘polarisation of electorate’

Since the SDLP played a pivotal role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland they have suffered at the polls.

The then leader John Hume knew by opening the door for Sinn Féin there was a risk of this happening.

The focus on the greater good culminating in the 1998 Belfast Agreement has not been rewarded by the electorate.

With Sinn Féin dominating nationalist politics in the North and a steady growth in the Republic, the SDLP has an enormous challenge to reverse its own serial decline.

It needs to attract back northern nationalist voters, who with the passage of time, are increasingly comfortable voting for its arguably more assertive rivals.

As SDLP members gathered for their conference at Titanic Belfast, jokes about sinking ships were too easy.

The SDLP is still the third largest party in the North, it has solid ideas and impressive performers, but it has serious problems.

In the early part of the day in a sparsely populated conference room one visitor remarked "it's been flat all morning". Another offered: "If they could bottle [deputy leader] Nichola Mallon that would be great.

“They have great people but being good Catholics and anti-Shinner isn’t enough.

“The problem is the party is not relevant.”

The main room filled up and proceedings livened up with leaders’ speeches in the afternoon and evening, while fringe events were well attended.

A seasoned SDLP observer said being a six-county party is “a problem but not the problem”.

They argue the problem is the “polarisation of the electorate”.

“The smaller parties need devolution to grow. Without the institutions Sinn Féin and the DUP continue to grow. Things like the DUP’s crocodile and Sinn Féin’s loaf keep giving people excuses to keep ‘themmuns’ out of power with their vote.”

Last year unionism lost its Assembly majority for the first time in the history of the Northern Ireland state, a Brexit not endorsed by the North at the ballot box is pending and Irish unity is a topic of conversation like never before.

At its peak in 1998 the SDLP held 24 seats in the Assembly but this has halved to 12 – and there is no Stormont.

It has no MPs. Three former leaders lost Westminster seats in the 2017 election – Mark Durkan (Foyle), Margaret Ritchie (South Down) and Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) – two to Sinn Féin, the latter to the DUP.

For the first time nationalist voters rejected representation in Westminster, backing seven of Sinn Féin’s abstentionist candidates.

Local government elections

In the aftermath of the Westminster losses, leader Colum Eastwood considered quitting but was encouraged not to from inside and outside the party.

The “new politics, new Ireland” agenda emblazoned on conference material is Eastwood’s message this year and he will be looking ahead to the local government elections in 2019.

Getting back to the Belfast Agreement institutions, agreed 20 years ago, and the spirit that underpins this is what is needed now, he suggests.

“If this week can spark some of that again it will have been worth remembering, commemorating and hopefully celebrating as well,” Eastwood said.

Around recent speculation about the SDLP’s possible future relationship with Fianna Fáil resurfacing , “we don’t rule out the possibility of realignment across this island”.

“It is a conversation that has been out there for 15 or 20 years,” he said.

The SDLP has dismissed claims it would disband if Fianna Fáil entered politics in the North but conversations are happening and if their future does lie in a merger or whatever a future relationship may look like it is not going to be a one-way street.

A Border poll on Irish unity is not imminent but it is on the radar.

Sinn Féin is the only all-island party with significant electoral presence in both jurisdictions so Fianna Fáil could benefit just as much as the SDLP if they decide to make the leap.