Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: It's been a slow burn, but new SDLP blood now blazing a trail

SDLP South Belfast MP Claire Hanna congratulated by husband Donal Lyons. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
SDLP South Belfast MP Claire Hanna congratulated by husband Donal Lyons. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

By Tom Kelly

Watching the results come in from Foyle and South Belfast in the early hours of Friday morning I was minded of the words of former SDLP deputy Leader, Seamus Mallon when I phoned him to say that Dr Joe Hendron had just taken west Belfast off Gerry Adams, the pithy Mallon replied: “Tell him, I am like Simeon, glad to have lived to see this day”.

In 2016 when the SDLP lost all three of its Members of Parliament it looked as if the glory days were well behind the party.

But slowly, slowly a new generation of SDLP elected members have been making their mark but much of that growth has been overshadowed by the success of Naomi Long in the EU elections.

But the background to the rekindling of the SDLP fire is very much in the context of Brexit and the DUP’s foolhardy response to the same issue.

In an interview just before the election I said that Brexit and hubris would lead to the electoral undoing of the DUP. And so it has come to pass.

The loss of Nigel Dodds is a major psychological blow to unionism. He is a talented political operator, courageous and a good constituency MP though in many ways he was the chief architect of his own demise through his hardline position on Brexit.

Watching the loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson going into meltdown on Twitter as the north Belfast result was announced was a moment of highly enjoyable comedy in a long night.

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SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is elected MP for Foyle (Niall Carson/PA)
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is elected MP for Foyle (Niall Carson/PA)

The DUP saw Brexit as an opportunity to hammer home ‘Britishness’ in this conflicted but shared space.

This was a sales pitch nobody was buying.

They overplayed their considerable leverage with Theresa May and were unceremoniously dumped by Boris Johnson.

Now they stand with their backs to the Irish Sea and nowhere to go but back to Stormont.

After nearly being wiped out in Belfast, Arlene Foster remained unrepentant and ungracious. This inability to grasp the notion that unionism is not well served by belligerence undermines its very cause. It also ignites and unites the opposition. Pacts or strategic alliances are okay as long they are for the electoral benefit of unionism according to the DUP bible.

The changes which have come about in South/North Belfast (and North Down) are the direct result of the DUP alienating moderate nationalists, unionists, non-aligned and Remainers.

The DUP propensity for rubbing remain and nationalist voters noses in the dirt was always going to backfire and the scale of that electoral retaliation was reflected in Clare Hanna’s stunning victory in South Belfast.

Emma Little Pengelly appeared to be a hugely unpopular politician amongst many of her constituents (the result confirms just how much). Her bizarre late night tweets regularly sent the Twitterati into orbit. She was the wrong woman in the wrong constituency.

Claire Hanna on the other hand was made for South Belfast.

She has proved to be a capable, inclusive and articulate voice for all of her constituents. That Hanna secured the backing of the Green Party neutered any accusations of pan-nationalism.

It is also notable that South Belfast is one of the few places where the Alliance vote went down.

Many commentators suspected that the SDLP would be punished by moderate nationalists for standing aside in north Belfast. This was a mistaken belief.

Colum Eastwood and Nichola Mallon caught the sentiment of the wider nationalist community angry at the continued misrepresentation of the DUP at Westminster.

Most nationalists and those non-aligned agreed when Eastwood said Finucane sitting in his home was less damaging to Northern Ireland than letting Dodds loose in the House of Commons. Voters got that — even if some commentators didn’t.

It was a risky strategy given the SDLP is wholly against abstentionism but it is a mark of how removed the DUP is from popular opinion that the SDLP was rewarded with whopping majorities in both Foyle and South Belfast - taking a huge 57% of the vote. Added to this was the frustration from soft Sinn Fein voters about abstentionism.

To some this was not the time to dodge the fight from the green benches in the House of Commons. This is reflected in the near 7% drop of the Sinn Fein vote across the North. Chris Hazzard, Sinn Fein MP for South Down only held on to his seat thanks to a surge in the Alliance vote. Something the SDLP and Alliance need to discuss if South Down is to be held by a centrist.

Looking across the electoral map of Northern Ireland, the SDLP appears to have managed to improve the vote through it’s more media savvy performers, Daniel McCrossan, Pete Byrne, Claire Hanna and of course Colum Eastwood.

Eastwood has been a slower burner as leader of the SDLP but after four years he has matured into the role. His recent media performances were assured, confident and passionate. The SDLP campaign was helped by having the articulate, SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon freed up to play sweeper across the media and the constituencies.

At the height of the Unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in April 1986 - the Irish Times wrote "The SDLP through John Hume and Seamus Mallon have been more effective in Westminster than all of the unionists put together". That’s both the challenge and the opportunity for Eastwood, Hanna and the SDLP.

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