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.