Belfast Telegraph

SDLP has the chance to be strong political force again

As the SDLP leadership contest gets under way, former senior adviser CONALL McDEVITT says the winner should make allies of Fianna Fail

The SDLP should stand for a strong North in a strong Ireland. The leadership battle looks set to be fought out between Margaret Ritchie and Alasdair McDonnell, both formidable characters with strong track records.

Will it be a personality contest or is this an opportunity to debate the future direction of the party and Northern nationalism?

My own view is that it must be the latter if the SDLP is to become a major force in Irish politics again.

The DUP-SF coalition isn't working. There is no respect between the two parties and this is reflected by their failure to address the rising youth unemployment crisis, the education fiasco or the looming public finance squeeze. Not to mention the stand-off over the big elephant in the room of northern politics, sectarianism.

Sinn Fein has also seen its vision for an Ireland outside Europe and disinterest in managing the economy - to quote Gerry Adams - rejected by Southern voters. Truth is Mr Adams and the rest of SF's leadership look old these days. They are where Hume, Mallon and Rodgers were in 1998.

This creates a series of opportunities for the SDLP.

The electorate needs an alternative to the DUP and Sinn Fein. Opposing those who want to undermine power-sharing does not mean you should not work with parties which support it. There is an opportunity to co-operate across the community divide on issues which matter. Jobs, education, and the looming public finance crisis are opportunities for the SDLP, the UUP and Alliance to evidence an alternative. Co-operating in the interests of this region is not a denial of community identity; it is an expression of confidence and ambition for the North and this island.

The SDLP also has to get serious about unity and what it actually means for Northern Ireland and for the rest of this island. The party has said it sees a Northern Assembly remaining in a united Ireland but what does this mean?

Also, has the collapse of the Republic's economy made a united Ireland more or less likely and how would people in the Republic respond to the prospect of a referendum in the current climate?

What would any change mean to the living standards of the least well off? Would it be good or bad for business and public services?

Such questions have never seriously been posed. To date unity has equalled a one size fits all Ireland ruled centrally from Dublin.

This vision has given rise to Sinn Fein's often cited mantra that Northern power-sharing is just a "transitional arrangement".

We live in complex and uncertain times, and vague generalities won't cut it anymore. The SDLP has always been the party of ideas and surely it is time for a party with such a radical past to take up that mantle again, and to have the courage to ask the questions, and articulate a new nationalism.

The forum on unity proposed by Mark Durkan is the place for such a debate.

All this will be meaningless if the party can't sell its vision for the North and this island to a new generation. This means changing the face of the SDLP and bringing forward new public representatives that reflect today's Ireland.

The acid test of a good leader is her/his ability to build a talented and ambitious team. The next leader will have to recruit to recruit people who might someday do his/her job.

The truth is less people are joining political parties today. Everyone's membership base is shrinking as many opt to support from the outside. Finding new ways of building organisation and bringing in funds will be a major challenge for the new leader. This means making politics more conversational and being at the heart of campaign which transcend party politics.

The SDLP can see Fianna Fail and Irish Labour support groups in the North as a threat but given neither are contesting elections why not convert them into allies. The new leader can walk alone or seek to broaden the party's support base from within democratic nationalism and the non aligned middle ground without diluting the party's independence or integrity.

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