SDLP ponders place in world after bruising Stormont election

Party rues that its idea to ‘de-sectarianise’ first minister roles was not taken up

Back in January a former SDLP leader made a proposal that could have radically changed the nature of this month’s Northern Ireland Assembly election.

Margaret Ritchie suggested removing the symbolism from the race to be Stormont's biggest party, by changing the titles of the top two jobs to "joint first ministers, reflecting their identical status, powers and responsibilities".

It wasn't a new idea. Martin McGuinness, who Ian Paisley frequently referred to as "the deputy", had previously suggested the same thing, to no avail.

In a House of Lords debate, former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain voiced his support, but DUP peers objected. The UK government expressed sympathy but, since the proposal was not part of the New Decade, New Approach deal, ministers thought it best to return to the matter after the election. Given that rather vague assurance, the Labour peer withdrew her amendment.

Ritchie may work in London but she continues to live in South Down. She was Eddie McGrady’s assistant during the years when the SDLP MP used to rack up big majorities, and she knew all the villages and townlands of the rural seat as she followed up on constituents’ complaints. When she would walk along Downpatrick’s Main Street, everyone would want to talk to “our Margaret”.

However, those days are gone for the SDLP. Chris Hazzard captured the South Down Westminster seat five years ago as the Sinn Féin vote increased impressively. In this Assembly election, Sinn Féin easily outpolled the SDLP, as its two candidates, Sinéad Ennis and Cathy Mason, were elected on the first count.

Moreover, the SDLP has found itself squeezed on both sides. Alliance's Paddy Brown ran an energetic campaign. His posters urged people not to vote Green or Orange, but Brown. His reward was one of the two Assembly seats the SDLP previously held. In addition, the pro-life Aontú took a thousand votes, many of which might have once gone to the SDLP.

"An equalisation of the titles emphasising powersharing, reconciliation and working together would have perhaps changed the context of the election"

Ritchie looks back ruefully on what might have been. "My proposal, along with that of Claire Hanna and Colum Eastwood in the Commons, should have been taken seriously because to have joint first ministers would have helped to de-sectarianise the election," she says.

“It is a joint role. One cannot order paper clips without the other’s approval. I remember warning in January that we might not have an Executive on the far side of the elections. Now we see the upheaval which we could all have predicted. An equalisation of the titles emphasising powersharing, reconciliation and working together would have perhaps changed the context of the election.”

‘Tribal vote’

Just outside Downpatrick, the coaches at the Saul GAC club are putting the under-13s through their paces. Enjoying the sunshine as she watches her children play, Nuala says she is not surprised the SDLP fared so badly.

“Because of the negative language from the DUP, I think a lot of people from the nationalist community wanted to vote Sinn Féin to make sure there was a nationalist first minister,” she says.

“Unfortunately the SDLP lost out on that. I look at some of their politicians and they’re fantastic at how they articulate themselves. I felt sorry for Claire Hanna because she looked so bereft in the TV studio. But it was just a matter of nationalists wanting to secure first minister.”

Sitting on a bench nearby, Kevin reckons the allure of the Alliance Party also damaged the SDLP.

“People are sick of voting the traditional tribal vote as they would normally do,” he says. “Alliance is offering something different and people just thought they would try something different this time. Alliance struck a nerve.”

Martina, whose son Malachy (5) was attending his first session, says the centre of Downpatrick “is falling apart and the SDLP have been in position for long enough and haven’t taken enough action over anything. Alliance, they’re mixed and appear more youthful and on people’s wavelength”.

SDLP MLA Colin McGrath survived the election, but his running mate, Karen McKevitt, did not. He is removing his campaign posters from South Down lampposts, but intends to carefully store them in case the Stormont deadlock leads to another election.

“We managed over 9,000 votes, and that was a drop of maybe 2,000 or 3,000 from the last time,” he says. “But I am assured there’s a lot of votes that will come back to us because people like our brand of social democracy and sticking up for people and service in the community, and we will continue to display that.”

Campaign plaudits

One aspect of the election result that has been particularly hard for SDLP activists to take is that it followed a campaign that won plaudits. Party leader Colum Eastwood is a dynamic performer on TV, and polls carried out immediately after the two televised leaders’ debates singled him out as the clear winner.

Another articulate frontman for the SDLP is Matthew O'Toole, the only MLA whose CV includes a stint working as a civil servant inside 10 Downing Street (when David Cameron and Theresa May were in residence).

“We had a focused and disciplined campaign and a very strong leader who performed well,” he says. “We were innovative, but we were in a very difficult external context. So, it is frustrating, but it’s not anything to be totally downcast about.”

O’Toole notes a new “structural” challenge from Alliance. Once considered a small “u” unionist party, the centre-ground party is increasingly attracting younger voters in traditionally nationalist areas.Ritchie reckons the SDLP lost voters to Alliance because they were “fed up with the wrangling” and attracted to the party’s “plague on both your houses” message.

O'Toole, a South Belfast MLA, grew up in Downpatrick. When he was 11, his family was caught up in one of the most notorious atrocities of the Troubles: a UVF gun attack on The Heights bar in Loughinisland, which killed six people.

The pub was owned by his uncle Hugh, and the MLA recalls his father leaving home in a hurry that night, while the family was watching Ireland play Italy in the 1994 World Cup. Matthew's cousin Aidan was badly wounded in the attack.

During the Troubles no one asked what the SDLP was for. They represented nationalists who aspired towards Irish unity but opposed IRA violence. Through John Hume’s extraordinary efforts, the party went the extra mile to achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But in 2022, has the SDLP done its job? Is it time for the party to leave the stage?

The SDLP last week resisted pressure to participate in a quick fix of the Stormont gridlock by redesignating as "others"

O’Toole describes that idea as “deceptively attractive” but insists the SDLP is more than just a nationalist party. He says there has to be room for more than one party to make arguments around constitutional change and to espouse progressive centre-left politics.

McGrath agrees, arguing that “the SDLP was the party of peace, but it’s not simply a party of peace. We are a social democratic party”.

“Many of the existing parties here are at the extreme of the political spectrum. I think that actually the greatest space for political parties is in the centre and we’re very much a centre-left party.”

Cross-Border initiatives

The SDLP will now try to regenerate. Neither O’Toole or Ritchie seems particularly enamoured by the idea of seeking a merger with a Dublin-based party.

However, Ritchie and McGrath says its courtship with Fianna Fáil did produce some results, in the shape of Taoiseach Micheál Martin's Shared Island Initiative, with its promise of increased cross-Border investment, including millions to progress plans for the Narrow Water Bridge, which, it is hoped, will one day link Co Down to Co Louth.

The SDLP last week resisted pressure to participate in a quick fix of the Stormont gridlock by redesignating as "others". However, there are signs that some within might be up for looking again at what former leader Mark Durkan once referred to as the "ugly scaffolding" of the Belfast Agreement, including the way MLAs must sign in as "unionist", "nationalist" or "other".

McGrath notes that the 1998 agreement was always meant to be subject to review. “We would certainly hold dear to the core principles ... such as cross-community representation within the government. But how that’s constructed, how that’s managed, I think there could be conversations about that.”

Although the SDLP might be open to fresh thinking about reforming the cumbersome Stormont system, now that it has slumped to fifth place in the Assembly pecking order, the problem will be making itself heard.

Just like Ritchie at the start of the year, it might find UK ministers prepared to lend a sympathetic ear, but the key decision makers, whether on the protocol or powersharing, will always be those parties that get the most votes.