SDLP must plot a radical course or sink from view
It may be a four-horse race but whoever is victorious in the SDLP leadership contest must take the party into opposition at Stormont or face political annihilation, says Henry McDonald
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, perhaps it is appropriate to borrow a nautical metaphor in examining the current state of the SDLP.
The party is about to enter a potentially lethal leadership contest, with likely challenges to Margaret Ritchie from Patsy McGlone, Alasdair McDonnell and maybe their (only?) rising star in the Assembly, Conall McDevitt, to take control of the ship.
But, in charting this course, the SDLP is arguably merely changing captains at the helm even while it steers inexorably towards the ice-field of oblivion.
Because what is really needed for the party's survival is not a change of hands on the steering-wheel; rather a swift about-turn and a radical altering of direction.
None of the possible candidates who might replace Ritchie has thus far raised the most obvious strategic shift needed to make the SDLP relevant in the forthcoming years: to pull out of the five-party power-sharing coalition and give the people a credible opposition at Stormont.
Instead, the SDLP behaves as if it is still 1998 and they still need to be in government in order to 'bed down' the new institutions born from the Good Friday Agreement.
Of course, it is 2011, the IRA and loyalist ceasefires are 17 years-old and the departments and quasi-governmental bodies are up and running.
One of the more troubling by-products of the 'big tent', all-party arrangement at Stormont has been the virtual absence of an oppositional bloc that can hold the Executive to account.
Although Traditional Unionist Jim Allister has been impressive in highlighting the contradictions and the sclerotic nature of the coalition, he is virtually on his own.
There is, in fact, only one other party in opposition - the Greens. But they have only one representative, the articulate and equally competent Steven Agnew.
All of this has been bad for democratic debate and public scrutiny, especially in a government dominated by the DUP and Sinn Fein.
So should the SDLP, even now at the hour of their impending doom, step into the breach and become the voice of opposition in Parliament?
The trouble for the party is that if, under a new leader, they eject themselves from the Executive and jump into the opposition life-boats, they will be accused of opportunism.
Against the advice of many, the SDLP campaigned in the Assembly election on the understanding they would be going back into government once the votes were counted.
Before the election would have been the optimum time for the party to declare that it was not going to participate in what they themselves have described as a Sinn Fein-DUP 'carve up'.
They could - and should - have made a contract with the people that they and they alone would become the guardians of the public at Stormont by putting those in the Executive under pressure from the opposition benches.
It may, however, not be too late for the party to extricate itself from the power-sharing government. At least a brand new leader could stamp his authority on the party by plotting a radical new course. Whoever steps forward to take control of the wheel would have to make an early statement of intent. Dare to be bold and even state that it is their number one priority to take the SDLP into opposition within days of taking command.
Stalling on this decision gives the wrong message to the electorate. Not so much an SOS as an admission that the SDLP is stuck in the doldrums.
If the SDLP maintains the fantasy that it is still the party of the Agreement, then it cannot complain any more about 'carve-ups' or SF/DUP duopoly power.
The two biggest parties can rightly charge the SDLP with hypocrisy if it continues to snipe from inside the tent, rather than outside it.
There is a deep degree of public cynicism about the efficacy of this current power-sharing government. Yes, the people of Northern Ireland are grateful that there is no power-vacuum in local politics that could be filled by Troubles-style terrorism.
But their view of devolution is contradictory - particularly on a practical level. People see local politicians as powerless when it comes to the real, everyday issues that impact on their lives.
Stormont could do nothing to stop Power NI hiking electricity costs by nearly 20% and, in so doing, tipping thousands more people into fuel poverty.
The Executive seems unwilling and unable to take on the equally disgraceful behaviour of the banks - especially the Irish ones bailed out by the southern taxpayer.
The Nama banks continue to squeeze the life out of small businesses and impose punitive charges and fees on its individual customers as the politicians watch from the sidelines. When was the last time a local banker, or an energy company boss, faced a tongue-lashing from a Stormont committee?
Where are the policies to force the banks to start lending again and stop driving enterprises towards bankruptcy?
These questions are the sort that a robust, numerically strong opposition could ask of the Executive.
Never mind the supposed virtue of being an enthusiast of all-inclusive politics.
That time is long past. A viable democracy also needs discordant voices, disturbers of the political peace.
The SDLP once played that role in its fledgling years. Time now to get back to basics.
Otherwise the ship will sink - regardless of who is wearing the captain's hat.