SDLP must rediscover its left-wing roots to survive
As the SDLP prepares to elect a new leader, Michael Conaghan says the time is ripe for the party to go back to it basic ideals
My father, a founder member of the SDLP and its former vice chairman, once asked Seamus Mallon whether he thought that all that they had done was come to replace the old nationalist party. "If we haven't" replied Mallon laconically, "then I'm in the wrong organisation".
As the resignation of Margaret Ritchie plunges the party into its latest existential crisis, this question of identity is now key to the party's survival. For like its former partner in government, the Official Unionists, the SDLP seem doomed to inexorable decline, watching from the sidelines as power and votes drain to their dare one say, feral rivals, Sinn Fein and the DUP.
Both parties have made possibly fatal mistakes with the company they keep. The Official Unionists' link with the Conservatives has brought them nothing but grief, and the SDLP's flirtation with the now (heavily) tainted Fianna Fail would have surely been equally disastrous had it been consummated.
So can the party survive in its present form, as merely a default vote for Catholic professionals for whom a vote for Sinn Fein would stick in the craw?
The answer lies within the name of the party itself. The Social Democratic and Labour Party was founded in 1970 with a strong element of old style socialism represented by initial leader Gerry Fitt and by founder member Paddy Devlin. Both became disillusioned with what they saw as the party's increasingly nationalist agenda as power switched to John Hume. At the time his mixture of nationalist ideals and a defiantly Irish Catholic strand of social justice seemed a no less potent mixture than their traditional left wing values. But the downside was a socially conservative agenda which left the party blind to the more progressive political forces of the era such as feminism and gay rights.
With hindsight, the Sunningdale agreement that was the party's chief achievement seems merely to have anticipated our current set-up, which has resulted in this current strange coagulation of authoritarian right and faux-revolutionary left. But surely the time is now right for the SDLP to rediscover the centre left values on which it was founded. The key question that has dominated our politics, that of Irish unity, can be safely put on the back burner for a generation or two as the world sorts out a crocked economy, environmental catastrophe and the realignment of superpowers. With the nationalist label removed there is room for a party that can reach out across the community and chime with the core values that unite us. As in Scotland and Wales, the alleged virtues of English Toryism leave us cold; and in Northern Ireland we have a vibrant artistic and cultural community that if poked, would, I suspect, tilt leftwards. More importantly, young people for whom the Troubles are more history than actuality would be offered a genuine opportunity to vote for a radical party for whom their religion would not be a stumbling block.
The SDLP must often look across the water and wonder if they could find a figure like Alex Salmond who could lead them out of the doldrums through sheer charisma. But Salmond renewed Scottish Nationalism through positioning himself to the left of Labour. Post-Hume, no such figure exists here. Historically the SDLP's role in our recent history has been uniquely honourable, with many members risking their lives to present a viable alternative to IRA brutishness. A suitable legacy would surely be to bequeath to Northern Ireland a party that can finally unravel the sectarian knot which has skewed our history right up to the present day.