For someone pleading for “unionist” votes, the SDLP Leader has a strange way of going about it. He made a call for a “Border Poll [immediately] after Brexit” front and centre if his party’s manifesto launch, having spent the start of the campaign talking about pacts with Sinn Féin.
It is just possible he is genuine when he talks about this “not being about winning” and about “persuading unionists”. That only shows how few unionists he knows. What even small-u unionists actually hear is someone who cannot be trusted because he sets constitutional preconditions, who is not genuine about making Northern Ireland work because that is predicated on something they do not want, and who actually wants to take away their identity by removing them from the state to which they are affiliated as soon as possible.
He cannot possibly represent unionists, therefore, because he cannot possibly be trusted by them – being, to their ears, quite evidently ignorant of their aspirations and fears. Worse, he and his colleagues seem unwilling even to contemplate this is the case, simply dismissing such responses as “sectarian”.
As noted last week, if your priority political interest aligns with only one side’s identity (whether intentional or not), that is the very definition of sectarianism. You cannot tackle it by ignoring it. Needless to say, the sectarian nature of this place means that focusing on one “side” means you lose the other. Those small-u unionists who saw the SDLP home in the past may be somewhat less willing next Thursday, because the SDLP simply does not listen to them. It may be too late for that lesson ever to be learned.