Is it true the centre cannot hold, as the poet WB Yeats once prophesied?
One of my few good predictions, following Sinn Fein’s electoral triumph in the Assembly elections of 2003, was that support for the SDLP would prove more resilient than many imagined.
So it proved. The juggernaut slowed down and in the context of all-Ireland politics Sinn Fein is a largely peripheral force. It lost ground in the last Dáil Éireann and European elections. Its tragedy, as was said of the unelectable British Labour Party of the early 1980s, was that it could change its policies but it couldn’t change its past.
The SDLP has had the courage and, under the leadership of Margaret Ritchie, the new-found confidence to resist overtures in favour of green “unity” candidates, thereby rejecting the politics of the sectarian head-count.
But the Ulster Unionist Party is in deeper electoral trouble than the SDLP, so the pressure to merge in a pan-unionist alliance is greater. Should this happen, the results might well be less than the sum of the parts. The deep distaste some voters feel for the DUP, and its Paisleyite legacy, would be likely to translate into further declines in the unionist turnout.
Still, the pressure would intensify for a pan-nationalist front in response to unionist moves towards unity. Ironically, the party pressing most strongly for this is Sinn Fein, the party of self-proclaimed republicanism. But historic Irish republicanism has been about the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Not its opposite.
An alliance of SDLP talent and street-level Sinn Fein brawn seems unlikely, in view of their differing approaches to republicanism and social democracy.
Likewise, the disastrous precedent of the Tory-UUP pact is likely to kill off any remaining enthusiasm for an SDLP-Fianna Fáil link up. But were two communal pillars to emerge in the electoral arena, one orange and |one green, an unintended consequence might be the strengthening of the traditionally small but hard centre of Northern Irish politics, the Alliance Party. Political space might also open up for the emerging Labour Party. There is a 15% or so of the electorate that holds no great love of the four major battalions.
It might be worth watching that space.
Liam Kennedy is Professor of Economic and Social History, Queen’s University, Belfast