The SDLP under new leadership has hinted at embarking at last on a path which would make it markedly different from Sinn Féin. Unfortunately, it has also already shown signs that it will fail to make it very far down that path.
Several SDLP representatives, typically younger ones, have referred to the requirement to “make Northern Ireland work”, even going so far as to suggest that, without doing so, a “United Ireland” [a sovereign Irish Republic of 32 counties] will be impossible.
They are right.
However, this brings with it two specific challenges, neither of which the SDLP seems adequately prepared for.
Firstly, what they are saying, in terms of priorities, is a far more radical departure from traditional Irish Nationalist thinking than they seem to realise. It is a Nationalist shibboleth that a “United Ireland” is presented in and of itself as the solution to Northern Ireland’s problems (or “innate sectarianism” or “dysfunctionality”), not that those problems have to be solved beforehand. In other words, it is an absolute in traditional Nationalist thinking that a “United Ireland” comes first and solving Northern Ireland’s problems (and “sectarianism” and “dysfunctionality”) comes after – it is this which distinguishes Nationalists from the likes of Anna Lo (whose preference is for a “United Ireland” but who refers clearly to “building a United NI” first).
Secondly, there remains no evidence whatsoever that the SDLP – a party all of whose main office holders and elected representatives are of Irish Catholic background in a community where that applies to less than half of the population – has any ability to reach out beyond zero-sum Nationalism (and thus slipping back into line with the shibboleth). Even subtle things – such as using exclusively Nationalist phrasing such as “the north” out of clear context – point to a party which has no idea how to respect non-Nationalists’ identity and thus to appeal and earn trust outside that overtly Nationalist/Irish Catholic base.
This is before we even get to party policy, which is almost every sense is designed to make Northern Ireland more dependent on welfare and public spending rather than less so (the only senior SDLP politician who wanted to address this is the recently deposed Leader). To meet the minimum requirement of halving the subvention (to a level where Northern Ireland meets its own spending except in UK-wide areas like Defence and debt interest), a fundamental policy shift in areas such as economic development, planning and public administration is required, but there is scant to zero evidence that such a shift is nigh.
Therefore, the words about “making NI work” and an “agreed new Ireland” are all very well, but they are not matched by the practice. The party will be wary of emerging from Sinn Féin’s shadow to challenge Nationalist shibboleths that a United Ireland will make a functioning Northern Ireland viable rather than the other way around; the party, I suspect, does not even realise when it does or says things which are exclusive of those not of Irish Catholic background (and is in any case always minded that its main rival is Sinn Féin); and political stances are completely at the wrong end of the spectrum (again, usually placed comfortably alongside Sinn Féin with differences only in tactics, not actual policy).
The SDLP needs to move out of Sinn Féin’s shadow if it is to offer an alternative which may take votes from it and indeed appear relevant to younger voters who currently do not bother with elections at all. A strategy which offers something genuinely different – “an agreed NI en route to an agreed Ireland” – would at least make it interesting if it could be matched by a genuine ability to reach across the divide and deliver a fundamental policy shift.
In short, the SDLP needs to be able to speak and appear relevant to non-Nationalists if it is to deliver on its new stated aim. But there is no evidence it can do so. Talking to people who already agree with you is easy. Talking to those who instinctively do not is harder. Doing is harder still…