Forget about polls, it’s about time the SDLP made nationalism a coherent offer of their own…

“Sometimes, you can actually bring home something that is food, food for the human community that we can sustain ourselves on and go forward.”
— Terence McKenna

The SDLP showed basic human decency in cancelling its conference this weekend. Statements from Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna, show that both of whom had known Chris Stalford from their pre-politics days. The decision went deeper than politics.

The expression of human empathy is not often something that is seen as a political strength in post Belfast Agreement Northern Ireland, but it is what has helped its people get on the road to recovery (even if it often happens in the absence of said politics).

It’s what stopped us from ripping each other apart during the Troubles itself. Seamus Mallon made a point of turning up to the funeral of every constituent murdered, whether he was always welcome or not. He was popular politician, but never populist.

But the modern day of the so called ‘peace process’ party has had a problem distinguishing itself from its rivals. In the Belfast Telegraph Jon Tonge argues that in terms of its United Ireland policy, it is hard to distinguish it from Sinn Féin.

The party’s strength lies in the quality of its candidates:

An absence of party talent is not the problem. Eastwood and Claire Hanna proved hugely popular at the last Westminster election. But much of their time in London is wasted in the House of Commons shaking their heads in disbelief or annoyance — often both— at the contributions along the green benches from DUP MPs.

Within the executive, Nichola Mallon has had a tough brief as Minister for Infrastructure but has not lacked visibility. In the Assembly, the SDLP’s ratio of duds is probably one of the lowest. Matthew O’Toole is no-one’s fool and brings Downing Street and Treasury experience.

East Derry’s Cara Hunter shows the party can still recruit young people and be unafraid to promote. Others such as South Down MLA Colin McGrath and Daniel McCrossan in West Tyrone hold their own.

But, he says…

“A reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous new Ireland” is the SDLP vision.

Sinn Fein meanwhile declares itself the “United Ireland” party and insists “a new and united Ireland must be a place for all, if you are Irish, British, or both or neither. The Orange and British identity is important to a section of the community who share this island. It is therefore important to us all”.

The parties could swop manifesto unity sections and few would notice. Sinn Fein’s structural advantages as an all-Ireland party become ever larger.

The lack of challenge from the SDLP to Sinn Féin’s long on talk short on action approach to Irish unity does no favours to either. Calling for a border poll is pretty much the only SF policy. There’s few benefits to the SDLP in shadowing a non policy.

That strange vacuum, Tonge hints, may have something to do with the split in views in the leadership over a policy partnership with Micheál Martin’s Fianna Fáil which has been the only substantial north south policy innovation in the last twenty years.

If that was a cause, then enough time has surely passed to see that enlarging (to the north and further to the east) that opportunity is a pain free option for all sections of the party? In any case, get it on a table quickly and see what else floats?

In his Irish News column today Tom Kelly puts his finger on a wider problem, which is the lack of a narrative framework upon which to hang the SDLP’s emerging economically progressive agenda:

What is missing is a strong, coherent and repetitive message which cuts through to the public. Seamus Heaney once wrote: ‘Sink or Swim by what we are’. Maybe that’s the same for the SDLP.

Earlier he recalls Mallon and his habit of picking fights in the bar at conference, and his reaction the next day when no one would sit with him for breakfast: “Oh for God’s sake, if a man can’t have a row with his own friends, who can he row with!”

Such contention would eventually arrive in some form of workable consensus on what the SDLP was for (made easier of course by the fact SF was largely just for war). And the SDLP was always for some un-muddled, unsentimental form of reconciliation.

Indeed so effective was it back in the day that its public representatives often found themselves under physical attack for laying out ways forward as a viable alternative to the more destructive instincts of their rivals. A threat that has thankfully receded.

Polls are not predictors of the future. Unlike unionism, which seems to be in the midst of a massive row amongst rivals that could both challenge the DUP as unassailable leaders of the pack and see it through the current crisis.

One senses the days of using the (toothless) Sinn Féin bogeyman are over for unionist voters. They are looking for a party that will pursue good government, unionist or otherwise. It’s about time the SDLP made nationalism an offer of their own.

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