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SDLP: Gamble could halt a gradual decline

By Liam Clarke

The SDLP does possess a vision, despite all the setbacks and criticisms, and a large part of that vision is not being part of a nationalist pact at election time.

The party has been once bitten in co-operating with Sinn Fein and will be twice shy.

Under John Hume it helped Sinn Fein in from the cold, probably shortened the IRA campaign by a few years and saved lives, but its reward was see Sinn Fein overtake and eclipse it at elections.

Superficially, pacts with Sinn Fein seem pragmatic.

Party leader Alasdair McDonnell holds the South Belfast Westminster seat where a united unionist candidate, as is proposed, could sink him. Margeret Ritchie's South Down seat depends on cross-community voting and Foyle, held by Mark Durkan, looks on paper like a Sinn Fein seat, so if Sinn Fein would pull back it would secure Mr Durkan's position.

That way lies gradual absorbtion by Sinn Fein and a reduction in choice for voters.

The three SDLP MPs, who could be valuable in a hung parliament, rely on unionist tactical voting.

If Sinn Fein withdrew in favour of Mr McDonnell he could lose votes to united unionists. Both Ms Ritchie and Mr Durkan can also count on soft unionist votes who prefer them to Sinn Fein.

Opposition is the obvious next step.

The SDLP could not bring itself to vote for the last three budgets, so what is it doing in government? It looks like clinging to office in the absence of a big idea.

The SDLP has built up enough experience in government to be effective in opposition.

If it made the leap, then there would be pressure on the UUP to do the same and, even if it didn't, there are a collection of one-man bands the SDLP could co-operate with on individual issues.

It is a gamble without funding, but the suspicion is funding would come. The SDLP has been in decline for decades. Under Dr McDonnell it has managed to stabilise its position to some extent and to build up its organisation.

Now is the time to form some distinct policies and provide voters with some choice.

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