Belfast Telegraph

SDLP will sink unless it radically changes course

With nationalists staying in coalition maybe it is time for UUP to rethink its strategy, says Henry McDonald

When it comes to Titanic metaphors, the SDLP is the party that just keeps giving.

Last year during the leadership battle to succeed Margaret Ritchie, this writer suggested that the SDLP was in danger of sinking into oblivion and that unless a new radical course was plotted at the helm of the party, it was as doomed as the ill-fated ship, whose 100-year commemoration occurs in 2012.

Now we have that "radical" idea from the recently elected leader, the South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell. He is going to have rotating ministers who will only stay in a portfolio for one year at a time. Radical? It sounds more like a case of rearranging the deck chairs even after the ship has struck the iceberg.

The SDLP still pretends it's living in the era shortly after the Good Friday Agreement, when the new democratic/power sharing institutions needed bedding down, and the peace process was still fragile.

We are of course 14 years on from the agreement and there seems little likelihood of the entire project crashing. Even the silly infantile behaviour of Belfast's Sinn Fein Lord Mayor towards a young army cadet or the ludicrous loyalist outrage over a simple Irish language sign wishing all the citizens of the city a happy Christmas are not likely to spoil the bigger picture.

The reality is that Sinn Fein and the DUP are in this together and the SDLP is no longer the nursemaid of the power sharing settlement.

The two bigger parties demonstrated their unity at the most crucial testing time for the devolved government last April when they literally stood shoulder to shoulder with the family of Constable Ronan Kerr after he was murdered in a dissident bomb attack. If Oghlaigh na hEireann (the east Tyrone franchise) can't blow the Robbo-Marty roadshow off course, then little else can, barring a series of disastrous opinion polls for the DUP.

The new SDLP chief is a canny operator with decades of experience behind him. He wrestled South Belfast from unionist control through sheer hard work and a strong constituency presence.

McDonnell may lack the airs and graces of some politicians but he is a plain speaker in a part of these islands where that goes a long way. But does he really imagine that his proposal to rotate his single minister on the Northern Ireland Executive every 12 months is going to set pulses racing among the electorate?

What the electorate, well at least a part of it, wants is a strong opposition force inside the Stormont parliament. The SDLP could have provided that but have once again baulked at the opportunity. As was stated during the leadership contest, you cannot seriously criticise the policies Sinn Fein and the DUP are pursuing if you are sitting around the same cabinet table as them. Sinn Fein and the DUP would be absolutely justified in levelling the charge of hypocrisy at the SDLP and indeed the Ulster Unionists while the two parties remain inside the five-party coalition.

The only reasonable way McDonnell and co can make a stand against the cost-cutting policies in the public sector that Sinn Fein and the DUP carry out on behalf of the UK Treasury is to do so outside of government.

Otherwise, their criticism of each cut in the budgets of health, education or public sector jobs will be seen as purely opportunistic.

There are in fact, given Northern Ireland's population and size, far too many ministries costing millions up at Stormont. A far more radical idea, short of exiting the Executive altogether, would have been to propose a major reform of the number of departments and the culling of a large tranche of Stormont's bureaucracy. They could start the latter with the over-staffed press divisions working for the Executive whose numbers now exceed those of journalists in Belfast.

With the SDLP's move on its sole ministry, or to be more accurate, lack of movement, this once again creates an opening for the UUP. McDonnell's decision to remain inside the big tent in this new political season should provide the space needed for the UUP to change its strategy.

The question now is whether the party that once ruled (often misruled) Northern Ireland should become the main opposition force in the province.

Over to you Tom Elliott, after all, what have you got to lose?

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