Current Affairs Politics

United We Stand?


Since the signing of the multilateral Belfast Agreement of 1998 there has been a debate around the question of having two rival Irish Nationalist political parties, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, to represent the interests of the Irish communities in the north-east of Ireland. Over the last fifteen years SF has become the dominant Nationalist party and the second largest political grouping in the North, giving it the junior position in the power-sharing regional government between the British Unionist and Irish Nationalist communities (not to mention the supposedly “unaligned” population).

Its Nationalist rivals in the SDLP have been much reduced in elected numbers and influence. Many assume that at some stage in the future the SDLP (or at least part of it) will simply be absorbed by one or more political parties from the southern part of Ireland branching northwards. However so far it trundles on through thick and thin, and though some claim to see positive signs of growth to many others the party is in stasis. It is simply running to stand still.

Sinn Féin, though far from stellar in its record of regional governance and facing its own internal pressures due to a lack of progress in many key policy areas, attracts increasing support. In part that growth is driven by the party’s relative popularity in the rest of Ireland where it now regularly polls in third place, eclipsing the Irish Labour Party and others. The (overly) optimistic belief or assumption that SF will play some part in forming the next Government of Ireland is widespread amongst sections of the electorate and an increasingly worried right-wing, anti-Republican press, as is the belief that it will become the senior partner in the bilateral regional government in the north-east.

In such circumstances the SDLP looks irrelevant to many voters, a party which served well in its time but whose time has since passed. Hence the suggestion by some commentators that the Irish communities of the north-east would be better served by a single political power block to further their interests and progress their reintegration with the rest of the country, leading ultimately to national reunification. However the north-east of Ireland is not the only region where such debates between rival intra-communal parties take place. In both the Basque Country and Catalonia traditional “establishment” groupings are being challenged by up and coming rivals from within their communities (as indeed Sinn Féin once did – and which it might face at some stage in the future, though probably not from a resurgent SDLP).

The North American nation of Québec offers some further interesting parallels. From CBC News:

“Quebec’s ruling pro-sovereignty party is calling on its rivals to step aside and give the Parti Québécois a better chance of winning the next election.

On the weekend, Premier Pauline Marois called on Québec Solidaire and the upstart Option Nationale to sacrifice themselves for the greater cause of Quebec sovereignty and potentially open the way for the PQ to win a majority in the next election.

In 1968, the Rally for National Independence (RIN) stood aside, contributing to the PQ party’s majority win, years later in 1976.

Marois says Quebec’s other separatist parties should follow the RIN’s example, but this time the competition is refusing to stand on the sidelines.

Québec Solidaire MNA Françoise David responded to Marois’ pleas, saying that while their parties may agree on Quebec sovereignty, they disagree on a range of other topics.

The PQ is also being slammed by its newly formed rival, Option Nationale.

The party criticizes the government for being too apologetic for its pro-separatist stance.”

It will be interesting to see if the SDLP faces similar calls from Sinn Féin in the next series of Stormont or Westminster elections, or requests for an electoral pack. So far the party has set its face against any such agreements, temporary or otherwise. In contrast political parties from the British Unionist minority are actively seeking co-operation between each other and fielding joint-candidates with the objective of diminishing Irish Nationalist electoral representation in the north-east.

Despite many years of requests both sides of the border the possibility of a mainstream southern party moving northward to contest elections seems faint. Other national parties, like éirígí, the Workers Party, the Socialist Party and People Before Profit are far too weak to make any impression. Fianna Fáil has been actively organising in Belfast and elsewhere for a decade but hopes of it fielding candidates have been met with repeated disappointed. Fine Gael, current senior partner in Ireland’s coalition government, is highly unlikely to organise in the North given its general hostility towards reunification. The Irish Labour Party, on a downward spiral in all recent polls, though theoretically a “sister party” of the SDLP is under its current (and highly unpopular) ex-WP/DL leadership pretty lukewarm in its sisterhood. Until the putsch-leaders at the top of Labour are replaced (and one hears rumours) no change in policy is likely from that source.

So where next for the SDLP and the electoral representation of the Nationalist community in the north-east of Ireland? More of the same? Or can agreements be made to increase the overall effect of the Nationalist vote? One fears that an adherence to outworn positions will simply allow the united front of British political separatism in Ireland to gain at the next series of elections – making losers of us all on this island-nation.

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10 comments on “United We Stand?

  1. Political Tourist

    The SDLP might be around for some time to come.
    They start off in 1970 with an ready sitting MP, Gerry Fitt.
    Take Fitt out the picture and they have never won the West Belfast seat.
    Yet today in 2013 the SDLP have 3 MPs plus MLAs and a host of councillors.
    Not bad going for what is the political wing of the RC church in the North.
    Being vague on a number of issues has probably served them well.
    If any party is in long term danger of disappearing it’s the Alliance Party, even more so if the the number of RC voters continues to grow.
    The Alliance Party don’t seem to do to well in areas with a growing confident nationalist community.
    People can easily vote SDLP without the baggage of the provos if that’s what they want.


    • Take Fitt out the picture and they have never won the West Belfast seat.

      Joe Hendron won it for the SDLP in 1992.


  2. Séamus

    The Québecois parties are right of course in that the broader nationalist community has different opinions on social, economic, etc. issues so the idea that you the idea that you can have a monolithic all-encompassing party like the old Unionist Party is high unlikely.

    The SDLP’s problem is that both it and Sinn Féin are generally social democratic-leaning parties, though both are involved in administering British government policy, which is a policy of austerity at this point. The SDLP has struggled since the rise of SF to clearly define itself as a distinct party worth voting for, and it does seem a lot of its vote comes from people who won’t vote SF because of its association with the IRA. (SF also still needs the SDLP in the sense that the latter has traditionally tended to be the first party to start building in areas where there hadn’t been nationalist support before, which SF later reaps the benefit of.) It’s interesting to see some people flag the idea of the SDLP going into opposition in the North, however unlikely it might be it does show that some people are doing a bit of thinking on the matter.

    The problem isn’t restricted to the SDLP though. SF has had success as a broad-church party, but its vote in the North has levelled off in recent years. They’ve done a good job at eating into the SDLP’s vote, but it seems that at the same time they’ve been losing some of their traditional working-class republican support. It’s been fairly small so far, but that could well be due to lack of a serious alternative until now. As mentioned in the OP, the smaller left-wing and republican parties don’t exactly carry much weight on a national level. But it’s still interesting to look at how these groups and independents are beginning to have an impact in different local areas.


    • I agree with a lot of that. SF made the move from left-wing socialism to centre-left social-democracy (as well as overseeing the Republican end of the Peace Process) long ago and has reaped the rewards of that in electoral terms. They are largely in SDLP territory now, slightly to the left of the middle-of-the-road with some more leftish impulses still in place in some of their policies (and activists). The more conservative wings of the party seem to have fallen away completely or remain in place out of broader Republican commitments.

      I do believe there is probably room for a far more conservative, centre-right Nationalist party in the north-east. A northern Fine Gael type. However I can’t see the SDLP making that transition. And since they are competing in what is now SF’s territory they are electorally doomed. There is no real distinction between them and SF and I can’t see the party tacking to the further Left.

      I like éirígi quite a bit though I would be more social-democratic in my politics. But one can’t help but feel that a vote for them would be wasted.

      Personally I have no problem with several nationalist parties serving differing electoral needs in the North but agreements should be in place to maximise the overall Nationalist vote. That would be my area of concern.


  3. Political Tourist

    The old dementia setting in.
    Dr Joe was of course elected as a SDLP MP for West Belfast in 1992.
    His brother was in the Alliance Party.

    When you say SDLP, you are really talking about the voice of the RC Church in the North.
    Have the party ever said or done or printed anything the Catholic Church wouldn’t have agreed with.
    Btw, the Provos political tradition comes from the very opposite of social democracy.
    It was after all a military organization and a pretty right-wing one at that.


    • As I said in a Reply above, I do believe that there is space in the north-east of the country for a “northern Fine Gael”. The conservative, centre-right vote is clearly there. However I can’t see the SDLP making a move to the right without internal dissensions. The name says it all. I expect some would walk away and SF would reap the benefit in terms of experienced activists or attracting young people.

      Still that right-wing (RC?) vote does seem to be there. As it is the SDLP will remain a broad church to the satisfaction of nobody.

      The SDLP, via the old Nationalist Party and the Hibernians, has its own military antecedence however much it might protest otherwise. As for (P)SF the right-wing origins were never terribly right-wing though. Many proto-Provos in the mid and late 1960s were Trots and Marxists and remained so.


  4. Political Tourist

    Who thought the title up for the SDLP?
    Take it the Labour part of the name comes from the old Fitt and Devlin wing.
    The name comes across New Labourish long before NL was even thought of.
    Looking back from 43 years later maybe i’m missing something or reading something into the name that isn’t there.
    Was the Democrat part to do with the young turks in the National Democratic Party of the 1960s.
    The title always seemed very vague, not unlike the party’s politics.


    • True, though the SDLP did and does have genuine socialists and republicans amongst its numbers. But in general the party always seemed more Christian Democrat in nature to me, more at home in the Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael vien than a Labour one.


    • hoboroad

      It was almost the LSD party! I think it was Paddy Devlin who objected to that title.Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin both wanted Labour in the title it was John Hume and Ivan Cooper as well as the younger Civil Rights elements who insisted on putting Social Democratic in the title.


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