I had some sympathy with the SDLP’s censure motion on Monday, but in the end I had come to the conclusion it would have been best not to waste Assembly time with it. So it proved – if anything, it may have rebounded on the SDLP.
Firstly, and primarily, this is because the SDLP needed SF’s support just to bring the motion to the floor. That it was based on law-breaking but took an alliance with a party which continues to endorse decades of terrorism to bring it to the floor should already have been a red light to the SDLP.
Secondly, it was never going to pass. In some ways, the SDLP was in a better position before the motion was brought to the floor, and would perhaps have escaped better if SF hadn’t backed it. Perhaps, of course, that was SF’s calculation!
Thirdly, and I doubt this featured in the SDLP’s considerations at all, it saw the UUP inevitably endorse the DUP position (of endorsing law-breaking, lest we forget), and thus the re-entrenchment of the “pan-Unionist front” and thus further evidence that the UUP and SDLP cannot work together. The response by voters to a “pan-Unionist front” is a “pan-Nationalist front” which can only suit the larger Nationalist party, as the SDLP has already found to its cost in Fermanagh/South Tyrone.
It was of course a typically sectarian slug fest, but that does not mean that many of the DUP counter-punches weren’t accurate (not least on the first point above). In any case, creating a sectarian slug fest can be of advantage only to the larger parts of each side of that slug fest, or to the party which refuses to partake in it at all. The smaller parties on each side thus lose out on both wings – small wonder polls, however imperfect, continue to point to not only the UUP’s but also the SDLP’s eternal decline.
It’s unlikely to matter much in the long run – no one in the real world pays any attention to Stormont right now. However, to score, the SDLP will have to come up with something much more coherent and directly meaningful to the electorate – and something which differentiates it from SF, not which makes it reliant on it.