Long way from 1998 for the SDLP, but ‘back to basics’ is the route it has chosen

John Hume and current leader Colum Eastwood share faith in a ‘New Ireland’ message

Gathering in St Columb’s Hall in Derry on Saturday, the SDLP revisited the venue where Colum Eastwood gave his first speech to a conference as party leader in February 2016. Then the party had three MPs, 14 MLAs and north of 60 councillors.

Fast forward to 2023, and the party now has 2 MPs, 8 MLAs and less than 60 councillors.

Delegates understand that the party is under real pressure going into the next local elections.

On the platform, numerous speakers referenced last year’s disappointing assembly election result and the poll ratings, which have the party scoring just seven per cent.


What makes matters worse for the party is the fact there is no electoral breathing space to recover from last year. Local election candidates face a poll on May 18th, and a UK general election next year.

What seems to be this conference’s answer to their woes? Back to basics.

The theme of the entire day was “The Movement for a New Ireland”, and numerous motions were heard that were peppered with the theme of a “New Ireland.”

Yet none of this is new for the SDLP. The party’s co-founder and most famous leader, John Hume, regularly talked about a New Ireland and the party clearly felt comforted reverting to these core themes in the spiritual birthplace of the SDLP.

Current leader Colum Eastwood delivered a bullish speech to delegates, rejecting the analysis of the “naysayers” and the polls, which, he argues, are writing off the SDLP.

“Conference, let us say clearly in this hall today and then let us go out and tell the people you meet, the SDLP is here to stay.”

The conference stage, much like the TV debate studio, is Eastwood’s friend. Often, he delivers on stage with well-delivered presentations and, as a Derry man and the local MP, has a strong support base in his home city.

The question for the upcoming elections and the nagging problem for the party is that this does not seem to translate to other parts of the North.

The gambit of going back to the future and doubling down on a New Ireland has real risks for the party.

It could see more voters move to Sinn Féin as the all-island party and also help raise support for the Alliance, with their argument that the constitutional debate should not be the focus in the current political context.

However, if the SDLP are indeed in for the fight of their lives over the coming months, they may as well double down on the core values that they believe in.

The 200 plus delegates that gathered in the hall on Saturday need to believe that the party has a future and that there is no quick way back to the electoral dominance they once had.

The conference today shows the party knows that something has gone wrong in the past few years. The leadership are punting that a strategy around a New Ireland is the route to salvation.

Time will tell whether it works. The SDLP can learn an important lesson from the now-powerful Alliance Party. This time twenty years ago, it too was having its very future questioned.

The lesson from their success is to have a narrative and purpose and stick to it, no matter what, and organise a group of dedicated party members to help you achieve it.

The SDLP mission to define a New Ireland needs to be there for the long haul and deliver results.

It is a long way back to 1998.

David McCann is Deputy Editor of the Northern Ireland political website Slugger O’Toole.