Belfast Telegraph

Only way back for smaller parties is to flee Executive

The SDLP needs more than just a new leader; it needs to form an Opposition at Stormont with the UUP, writes Alex Kane

A successful political leader needs two key qualities: a clear, unambiguous agenda for the way ahead; and a ruthlessness which allows them to impose general discipline and keep potential rivals in their place.

Gerry Adams and Peter Robinson have those qualities; Margaret Ritchie doesn't. So it's probably no surprise that Patsy McGlone is challenging her for the job. He has, it seems, been listening to the grassroots.

But leadership isn't about listening to the grassroots. Leadership is about having your own ideas and then persuading your members and the wider electorate that you - and you alone - are the party's best hope.

The SDLP is dying on its feet because few people - including its own members - have a clear idea of what it actually stands for anymore. All its territory has been occupied by Sinn Fein.

Indeed, the SDLP has the same problem as the UUP: it's not the leadership issue which needs sorted; it's the role, relevance and identity issues.

So whoever follows Ritchie (and, yes, I think she will lose) needs to have a more convincing platform than 'I could do better.'

In hard political terms, membership of the Executive is doing the SDLP and UUP no good. They cannot hope to revive while remaining in that straitjacket.

Similarly, it's far too simplistic to suggest that both the SDLP and UUP need new, younger, more vibrant voices as leaders because the DUP and SF have reinvented themselves and found new ways of working together.

The truth is the DUP and SF have simply settled for a permanent stalemate in which they will forever circle each other, fudging where necessary, vetoing when essential.

Having younger, more media-friendly figures at the helm of the UUP and SDLP won't matter unless the people concerned have a clear, deliverable programme for shifting the existing carve-up and pushing Northern Ireland into a genuinely new political era.

The most obvious way would be for the UUP and SDLP to jointly market themselves as the alternative to the DUP/SF carve-up.

That would require the UUP and SDLP to jointly create an Opposition. They would need to reach agreement on their own Programme for Government and work out agreed responses to Executive policy.

The DUP and SF will find a variety of reasons for complaining about such a development, but then they would, wouldn't they?

And it doesn't really matter that Opposition structures don't exist at the moment; once the UUP and SDLP established themselves in the role, it wouldn't take long for the media, the general public and the Speaker's office to catch up.

I see it as a win-win for the UUP and SDLP. If they stay in the Executive, then they remain trapped, unable to criticise credibly, or effectively, because they are part of it and unable to carve out a clear identity for themselves because they will always be dwarfed by the Big Two. And come elections, the DUP will still play the SF First Minister card, while SF will also play it, but with a different emphasis.

The SDLP and UUP should avoid the inevitable rush towards yet more reviews, consultations, reinventions and wild-goose chases after mythical demographics.

If they want a chance of being big players in government again, then they must first prove that they can work comfortably and effectively together as the government-in-waiting.

It gives them a role; it gives them relevance; it attracts media and public interest; it gives them a purpose and direction; and it gives them a chance to shine in their own light, rather than being shadow players. All in all, it would be good for government and even better for democracy.

The SDLP and UUP should look upon this strategy as the Field of Dreams option: if they build it, they may be genuinely surprised by the numbers of people who come to it.

The task for both parties is the same: they either work together for a joint revival, or they die slow deaths separately.

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