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Eastwood needs Nesbitt and Nesbitt needs Eastwood if SDLP and UUP are to survive

After the SDLP's worst-ever Assembly election results, its leader must park his Irish unification project and make common cause with his counterpart in the Ulster Unionists, writes Alex Kane

Published 06/06/2016

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt
Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

When he launched his leadership campaign in October 2015 Colum Eastwood told his supporters: "The election results in the last couple of elections have been very, very poor for the SDLP and I think it's time that we stood up and took notice. I'm fed up losing. I think I can begin to turn things around in what will be a long process, but I am ready and able for the work."

It was a solid, confident pitch for a young man, aimed squarely at those who believed that recovery could only begin when Alasdair McDonnell - more than 30 years older than Eastwood - was removed as leader.

Eastwood won comfortably, albeit not overwhelmingly, at the party's annual conference on November 14, 2015 and assured the audience: "Be in no doubt the relevance of our voice remains. It simply needs to become more audible. We must demonstrate that the SDLP is again capable of showing that high politics, at its best, is of intimate value to people. We must show that politics is again capable of creating the change we all want to see. We've got to show ourselves to be good enough and competent enough to earn that trust."

Yet, just over a month ago, the SDLP recorded its worst ever Assembly result: down to just a 12% share, 83,364 votes (the second-lowest number in the party's history) and a loss of almost 100,000 votes since the 1998 Assembly election - when the SDLP actually topped the poll with 22% and 177,963 votes.

Eastwood had talked about the need for the party to be "audible". Yet these results suggest that either it wasn't, or it was but not enough people liked what they were hearing.

In fairness to Eastwood he had just six months to prepare for his first election. No one is waiting in the wings to throw down a challenge anytime soon.

Reversing a downward spiral of losses - which began under Mark Durkan and continued under Margaret Ritchie and Alasdair McDonnell - was always going to be difficult for someone barely into the job.

And with three years until the next elections, he does have some breathing space to make a mark and raise his profile.

During the leadership campaign last November I talked to an SDLP veteran about the impact Eastwood would have on the SDLP if he won.

He cited Mike Nesbitt: "Let's face it, Nesbitt was a last, almost desperate throw of the dice for the UUP. He was completely different. Most pundits wrote him off. But he has calmed the party and given it a confidence it hasn't had for a decade or more. And they're actually going into an Assembly election with their tails up. I think that's what Eastwood can do. McDonnell already has the smell of defeat on him."

That argument made sense six months ago. But with the UUP recording its worst-ever election result last month and failing to make even the modest progress that Nesbitt had predicted, the argument looks a lot shakier today.

The SDLP is playing down the outcome - some arguing that an internal report had hinted at a potential loss of five seats, rather than the two it sustained - but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the electorate's verdict on the party and Eastwood was brutal.

Eastwood joined the SDLP as a teenager in 1998, citing the "Good Friday Agreement and John Hume's leadership" as his inspiration. Ironically, that year was also the highpoint of the SDLP's electoral success and of Hume's reputation.

Hume had bent over backwards to get Sinn Fein and the IRA into politics and around the negotiating table, but within five years of the Agreement Sinn Fein was eclipsing it at the polls - the SDLP lost over 60,000 votes at the second Assembly election in 2003.

And since Hume stepped down as leader in 2001, the party hasn't had a leader (and it's now on its fourth one since then) who even comes close to wielding that sort of clout in Dublin, London, Washington, or Brussels.

Eastwood has an enormous task. How does he make the SDLP look like a credible and relevant alternative to Sinn Fein; and how, along with the UUP, does he build a similarly credible and relevant alternative to the DUP/Sinn Fein axis?

He addressed the first question shortly after he became leader: "What is unavoidably true, as shown by the recent polls, is that the unity visions contained in the manifestos of Irish nationalism, including our own, have thus far not inspired the buy-in or confidence needed.

"We shouldn't be afraid to admit that. We need to do better. Our prospects for reunification will live and die on whether they are seen and believed to be credible.

"Gaining that credibility means putting flesh on the bones of what we imagine that New Ireland to be, how it will work and how we'll all be welcomed into it."

What he seems to want to do is outflank Sinn Fein on Irish unity, but unless he gets the same sort of electoral foothold in the Republic I don't see how that will be possible.

In political/electoral terms, Sinn Fein is a genuine all-Ireland party, something the SDLP never was. At this stage it still looks as if Eastwood prefers Hume's fondness for rhetoric rather than machinery.

Given that he is now in Opposition with the UUP, it is worth recalling his comments from November: "Yes, we diverge on reunification, but, paradoxically, we now hold more common ground with unionism than perhaps ever before. Our mantra and mission of making Northern Ireland work is that common ground. We need willing partners in unionism to make it happen.

"I firmly believe that those relationships can be formed. I firmly believe that there are many in unionism who will respond positively to that invitation. That's a healthy common ground to hold for today and tomorrow."

Well, he's already at the "tomorrow" stage. The SDLP and UUP need each other. Nesbitt and Eastwood need each other. They both built their Assembly campaigns on the need to repair and replace the "dysfunctionalism" of the DUP/Sinn Fein relationship. They cannot hope to do that separately, not least because they don't have the resources and MLA numbers to do it separately.

They have three years to get their act together. That means the SDLP stepping back from the unity project for now (it's not a priority at this point, anyway) and the UUP stepping back from pacts, nods and winks with the DUP and other unionists.

There is no guarantee that either the SDLP or UUP will survive - particularly when MLA numbers are reduced to 90 or 85. So, they can either go their own ways, or prepare for defections, mergers, being swallowed whole and oblivion; or they can work together and become the change and difference that politics always needs.

It's a difficult call for both men. But at this stage, I don't see a better one.

Belfast Telegraph

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