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SDLP could live to rue failure to forge a partnership with UUP

Aligning with moderate unionism could have helped offset Stormont’s dysfunction and kept out Alliance

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood in front of a mural of former leader John Hume

It looked like the SDLP had turned a corner in the 2019 UK general election.

The party had its best result in a decade, rising three points to 15 per cent and gaining two seats (from zero). This built on rising support during council and European contests earlier that year, so it did not appear to be a fluke – yet it has all since melted away. The SDLP dropped to 9 per cent in last year’s assembly election, the worst result in its 50-year history. It no longer has enough seats to qualify for the Executive and its Assembly leader, Matthew O’Toole, has become “leader of the opposition”.

The drop has continued in opinion polls – down to 7 per cent in the last three quarterly LucidTalk surveys for the Belfast Telegraph, the most recent published this week. That puts the SDLP level with Traditional Unionist Voice, considered a minor party. The UUP is also in serious trouble but it is still entitled to a seat on the Executive and its polling has bottomed out at 10 per cent.

In 2019 the SDLP benefited from a general backlash against Sinn Féin’s boycott of Stormont, plus a particular problem for Sinn Féin in Derry, where voters turned against it over perceptions of cronyism. The SDLP could have built on these developments but Sinn Féin moved swiftly to deny it the chance, restoring Stormont within a month, then ruthlessly purging its Derry constituency association.

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The SDLP also benefited from an undeclared electoral pact with Sinn Féin in 2019, supposedly related to Brexit but mysteriously excluding anti-Brexit unionists. This gained it a seat in Belfast but cost it the claim of emerging from Sinn Féin’s shadow.

There is a sense of “damned if you do or damned if you don’t” for SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

“He is regularly told to attack Sinn Féin or stop attacking Sinn Féin,” Prof Jon Tonge of Liverpool University wrote in Monday’s Belfast Telegraph. “Neither strategy yields voting gold. It merely defines the once-dominant party of nationalism by what Sinn Féin does.”

However, there was briefly a third option for the SDLP. After the 2016 Assembly election, when official opposition was introduced at Stormont, the UUP, SDLP and Alliance all opted out of the Executive, leaving the DUP and Sinn Féin alone in power.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt tried to foster the idea of a cross-community opposition offering “a whole new middle-ground politics” by encouraging voters to transfer between his party and the SDLP. He used the slogan “vote Mike, get Colum”. Excruciatingly, Eastwood did not reciprocate – although he did address the 2016 UUP party conference.

Had a joint platform been professionally arranged it could have capitalised on the disaffection with Sinn Féin and the DUP that followed Stormont’s 2017 collapse. Instead, that became the Alliance surge

When Stormont collapsed in early 2017 over the RHI scandal, Nesbitt had an opportunity to test the idea at the ballot box. He said he would personally transfer to the SDLP, but again Eastwood did not reciprocate. While both parties maintained their vote share in the election that March, Nesbitt considered this a failure and resigned immediately.

Eastwood’s reticence throughout had been understandable. Announcing a transfer policy without detailed agreement from the other party was amateurish, caused open dissent within the UUP and squandered the presentational power of the idea.

The concept was sound, however, even if the execution was an embarrassment. A small but significant number of UUP and SDLP votes always transfer, albeit more for tactical than noble reasons.

When the DUP and Sinn Féin found themselves alone in office, they tried to present themselves as the natural powersharing partners of government, even arranging a joint statement on Brexit. It would have been far more plausible for the UUP and SDLP to portray themselves as natural powersharing partners in opposition.

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Had such a joint platform been professionally arranged it could have capitalised on the disaffection with Sinn Féin and the DUP that followed Stormont’s 2017 collapse. Instead, that became the Alliance surge – early signs of which were evident in the 2017 election, before taking off in 2019.

Although Alliance’s polling has peaked at 15 per cent, this appears to be a permanent new feature of the landscape, making it too late for the UUP and SDLP to stake their collective claim on the centre ground.

This may come to be seen as a great what-if of Northern Ireland politics. The mere existence of a multiparty opposition in 2016 forced the DUP and Sinn Féin to try to improve, even when their electoral positions were unassailable.

A cross-community opposition, with the UUP and SDLP of comparable size, would have helped simplify the conundrum now facing Stormont: how to reform powersharing, so that a DUP or Sinn Féin walkout cannot cause another collapse.

Nationalists and unionists together could just have voted for the other lot, like in a normal democracy. Eventually, they might even have done so.