Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

SDLP and UUP alliance could alter landscape, but to date there is little evidence of Messrs McDonnell and Nesbitt acting in tandem

ULSTER/Concert 8...U2 rock star is flanked by UUP leader David Trimble (left) and SDLP leader John Hume on stage during a special concert in Belfast tonight (Tuesday) to promote the "Yes" vote in Friday's peace referendum in Northern Ireland. In an unprecedented display of cross-community support for the agreement, Mr Hume and Mr Trimble came together for the first time for the sake of the 'Yes' campaign. See PA story ULSTER Talks Bono.   EDI Photo by Chris Bacon/PA
Peacemakers: David Trimble, John Hume and Bono at a concert to promote the Good Friday Agreement

One of the iconic images of the peace process is that of David Trimble and John Hume, side by side with Bono, their hands held high by the U2 singer on a Belfast stage.

It is hard to imagine an occasion today when the current leadership of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP could strike a similar confident pose together.

In the aftermath of the council and European elections the SDLP is understandably pondering the question as to where the party goes from here.

The leadership of Alasdair McDonnell is under fresh scrutiny and criticism after the party failed to reach his stated goal of 80-plus seats in the council elections, managing to win only 66.

Gone are the glory days of John Hume and Seamus Mallon when the SDLP called the political tune in Dublin, London and Washington. Dr McDonnell continues to lay specific emphasis on his representation at Westminster, where Sinn Fein remains in absentia and he has a seat. However, political influence cannot be divorced from falling electoral support.

Granted the SDLP is still a significant player, its reputation built on being the voice of middle, academic and business class Catholic Ulster, but therein lies the problem. Without sufficient support from the so-called working class of local society, neither the SDLP nor the Ulster Unionists can return to their past positions of dominance. Both parties have lost core support to Sinn Fein and the DUP.

The SDLP and UUP have failed to differentiate themselves sufficiently from the dominant parties. The old crystal clear divisions between Sinn Fein and the SDLP on the one hand and the DUP and the UUP on the other are now blurred as all four parties are committed to power-sharing.

The SDLP and Ulster Unionists also send out confusing mixed messages to the electorate in relation to their part in the Stormont Executive. They wash their hands of Executive decisions but their ministers remain part of the collective, showing no signs of resignation. They appear fully committed to holding onto their posts no matter what rows or controversy are breaking over their heads at the Executive table.

Somehow the SDLP and Ulster Unionists must widen their existing narrow electoral base and attract more voters from the lower social class sector of the nationalist and unionist community. That is made all the more difficult because the parties rarely send out simple bullet-point, unambiguous messages – straight-talking sound-bytes which can be understood by ordinary people.

Mike Nesbitt is a good communicator, as well he should be given his TV background. Mr McDonnell is much less so, not least because he is not as evident in the public eye on a regular basis because of his Westminster base. The problem for both leaders is that the message they are trying to convey is simply too complex, convoluted and unclear for many potential voters to understand.

In contrast, Sinn Fein's message through an impressive array of media spokespeople comes across loud and clear locally. It is little wonder that the republicans are now gleaning votes from the educated, middle-class Catholic society, which was the backbone of the SDLP.

Likewise, the Ulster Unionist party has lost some of its best brains and much middle-ground support to the DUP, a party with its roots originally in the working-class Protestant community. The new book by Liverpool academic Jonathan Tonge, serialised in last week's Belfast Telegraph, traces the extent to which the DUP has eaten into Ulster Unionist membership.

On current voting trends, the DUP and Sinn Fein support has peaked, but the SDLP and Ulster Unionists are not faring any better. Mr Nesbitt may criticise the Stormont Executive's performance, yet he shows little or no enthusiasm for withdrawing ministerial support. Mr McDonnell seems under pressure from within the SDLP to think again about the party supporting an opposition at Stormont.

Both leaders seem under-whelmed at the prospect of forming a cross-community alternative to the DUP/Sinn Fein axis. To date there is little evidence of Messrs McDonnell and Nesbitt acting in tandem. They may say that their parties do co-operate behind the scenes and maintain cordial relations, as well they should, but is that really enough?

Would not a more public display of co-operation and joint commitment towards challenging the frustrating workings of Stormont in its current format not raise the public interest in both parties? And maybe even stir some people in an increasingly apathetic electorate to think again about voting for them?

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