Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

SDLP must address its identity crisis ... quickly

The problems besetting Margaret Ritchie's party date back to its foundation 40 years ago. A renewed commitment to social democracy could be its salvation, says Robin Wilson

It was doubtless embarrassing for SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie to have her awkward voice made the subject of WikiLeaks revelations.

But Ms Ritchie is the first woman to lead a major political party in Northern Ireland and how women appear in public all too often becomes the focus of attention, rather than what they have to say.

Ms Ritchie's leadership victory at the 2010 SDLP conference over rival Alasdair McDonnell was by a modest 35 votes. So after another poor showing by the party in the Assembly election, there are rumblings that could surface in a renewed leadership row.

But this would focus on symptoms rather than the problem - the unresolved tension in the party going back to its foundation in 1970.

The SDLP was an amalgam of figures from labourist and nationalist parties. The former prevailed in the initial leadership of Gerry Fitt and the party demarcated itself from the old Nationalist Party by challenging unionism from within the Stormont parliament.

But the party returned to abstentionism in July 1971, following the murder of two civilians by the army in Derry, rendering it dependent on the Irish government for its political future.

After the power-sharing Executive of 1974, in which the party was the leading influence, was brought down, the SDLP gradually lost its labour wing and its way.

Fitt resigned over the SDLP's abstention from a round of talks on renewed devolution in 1979. Paddy Devlin had gone a year earlier, frustrated by the party's nationalistic trend.

New leader John Hume failed to resolve the dilemma.

His European 'post-nationalism' was too ethereal for the party's traditional supporters: an Alliance figure once unkindly joked that Hume couldn't see a plane overhead without wondering why he wasn't on it.

And his contradictory commitment to a dual nationalism - reflected in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and, in the 1992-93 talks, a deal-breaking joint authority - simultan- eously alienated left-of-centre Protestants.

Decline was inevitable, regardless of who was leading the party - particularly when it became evident to Dublin, and more particularly London, that the IRA campaign might be ended in a way which removed Northern Ireland from the political agenda.

The new language of the 'peace process', of 'parity of esteem', was to institutionalise sectarian division. And the conservative, nationalistic assumption that all Protestants would always and only be British nationalists (unionists) and all Catholics (Irish ones) could only benefit the 'republican movement' of Sinn Fein and the IRA.

The SDLP now finds its agenda set and the party divided by the slogans of its two competitors - a 'united Ireland' from Sinn Fein and, to a lesser extent, a 'shared future' from Alliance.

Ms Ritchie tends towards the liberal position, whereas Mr McDonnell and the party's deputy leader, Patsy McGlone, veer towards the nationalist one.

Only by investing in a forward- and outward-looking social democracy can the party establish a distinctive and unifying position.

Alliance showed with its gains in the Assembly election that a progressive party can advance with a coherent message conveying integrity.

But liberal parties across Europe tend to command only 5%-10% of the vote, whereas social-democratic ones can surpass 20%, 30%, or even 40% at times. Alliance thus matches its potential, but the SDLP under-performs, partly because of its blindness to its potential secular-Protestant support.

Successful social-democratic parties have a core message of social inclusion: 'Everyone on board' is the slogan of the Norwegian party in the successful 'red-red-green' government there.

Northern Ireland has a huge problem of social marginalisation and only a party committed to social solidarity - including across the sectarian divide - can credibly claim that it can address it.

With all the other parties signed up to a right-wing (and economically ill-founded) 'race to the bottom' on corporation tax for the private sector, there is a big space for the SDLP if it supports solutions based on a strong and prosperous public realm.

Secondly, social-democratic parties believe that we are all, in the biblical phrase, 'members one of another'. With growing disillusionment, reflected in plummeting turnout, with the sectarian policy stand-offs and inertia at Stormont - particularly over education - in the latest Assembly term, there is again a big space for the SDLP to offer a positive, alternative message in favour of a politics of the common good.

It can sponsor a political style in favour of progressive consensus and governance arrangements which sustain equality of citizenship, but favour collective commitment.

With devolution now a stable reality, the SDLP can climb out of the Hume trap on nationalism: in the spirit of the older socialist John Hewitt it can argue concretely for maximum collaboration with our fellow Irishmen and women in a spirit of reconciliation, as if we had a 'united Ireland', while simultaneously engaging to our benefit with the devolution and Left-Right divide that characterise contemporary UK politics - as well as, last but not least, taking part in the wider European debate about how we cope with the global economic and ecological crises that affect all our lives.

So the SDLP has a clear future - funnily enough, as a social-democratic and labour party.

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