Even as, for the first time, nationalism in Northern Ireland may find itself in the symbolic driving seat of the role of First Minister, the SDLP’s polling remains stagnant.
The most recent Irish News/University of Liverpool poll showed the party polling at 9.9%, which would represent a new low-mark for the party in Northern Irish elections, if the results on May 5 match the poll. It also shows them significantly behind Sinn Féin, who poll at 27% and are on course to top the poll in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
Just over two years ago, there were signs of resurgence for the SDLP in the 2019 UK General Election. Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna scored record-breaking landslide victories in Foyle and South Belfast respectively, and Colum Eastwood’s claim to his party being the most ‘pro-European party’ in Northern Ireland, appeared to land home among the electorate.
In addition, Sinn Féin had seen their own vote decline in all but one of the seats they contested.
The Brexit campaign and its fallout allowed the SDLP to give themselves a sticking plaster, as they could, with some credibility, mark themselves out as more ‘pro-European’ than Sinn Fein, owing to Sinn Fein’s previous opposition to the Lisbon Treaty and their campaign for a leave vote in the 1975 European Communities referendum.
The aforementioned poll shows, however, that the SDLP are failing to capture the imagination of voters in Northern Ireland.
For years the party has been bogged down by the consensus that the SDLP’s raison d’etre has become obsolete ever since the IRA laid down their arms. Indeed, as far back as 2013, the party’s own research found that many potential voters perceived them as a ‘middle class’ party and as a party ‘of the past’. In essence, being the party of nonviolent Irish nationalism no longer serves them since Sinn Féin have successfully reinvented their image.
The SDLP have themselves tried to reinvent their image, with varying levels of success. Having sought to match Sinn Féin’s all-Ireland image, they entered into a partnership with Fianna Fáil. It was somewhat of a blunder on their part since Fianna Fáil are widely unpopular in Northern Ireland and are arguably a fleeting force in the Republic of Ireland, whose voters still hold memories of the 2008 recession.
When voters look at rival parties, such as Alliance, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and the Green Party, they have a clear idea of what those parties stand for. Alliance equals cross-community. Sinn Féin equals united Ireland. People Before Profit equals radical socialism. Green Party equals tackling climate change
Instead of trying to ‘call out’ Sinn Féin, the party needs to establish a set of core principles on how to defend civil rights and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It needs to set a political agenda and provide an alternative political agenda to the visions of the other parties. In other words, Colum Eastwood’s party needs to lead, not simply respond to events such as Brexit.
Until recently, abortion was something the SDLP tried to use to define themselves from Sinn Fein, but the results of which have led younger progressive voters to look at the SDLP with scepticism.
In order to recover its fortunes at the ballot box, the SDLP needs to utilise its legacy of being the ‘party of civil rights’ and the architect of the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland is now a society in transition in the aftermath of The Troubles and the promotion of civil rights are as necessary now as they were throughout the conflict.
What is necessary is a means of adapting the struggle for civil rights into the issues of today. These include Irish language rights, abortion access, and achieving true reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics.
The party’s MLA in Lagan Valley, Pat Catney, has made a name for himself as a champion of progressive causes, such as tackling period poverty, and voting against a DUP bill in Stormont which sought to restrict access to abortion if a fetus could end up being born disabled. Whilst Catney voted against this DUP bill, 8 of the 12 SDLP MLAs voted with the DUP seeking to restrict access to abortion. The party currently allows a free vote on abortion, essentially still espousing a pro-life view whilst allowing people to vote for pro-choice bills.
Abortion is a contentious subject that evokes passionate arguments, but the only way to utilise the SDLP’s credibly legacy on civil rights is to argue that ‘women’s rights are civil rights’. Contrary to the narrative of some commentators, Northern Irish voters are just as progressive on social issues as voters in the Republic of Ireland, as shown by a BBC/RTE poll for Nolan Live in 2015. There is simply very little appetite for conversative politics within nationalism.
They should also embrace universally popular economic policies and argue that ‘economic rights are civil rights’, by supporting universal basic income, increasing the minimum wage, as well as a set of clear-cut economic policies to tackle the fuel crisis and the cost of living crisis.
When politicians campaign for a material improvement in people’s lives, voters tend to be more willing to give them a chance when it comes to voting time.
If the aforementioned opinion poll figures hold true, but Catney still manages to keep his Lagan Valley seat, the SDLP should take this as a lesson to adapt to his kind of politics. Having previously been an unknown quantity for many voters outside his own constituency, he has arguably been the most progressive SDLP MLA to have emerged from the previous mandate and has managed to become popular with younger voters.
The SDLP has a new generation of impressive and articulate politicians who, if they espouse Catney’s form of politics, could find a way to capture the imagination of a lot of voters in Northern Ireland.
Being a progressive, civil rights focussed party who campaign for reconciliation both in Northern Ireland and throughout the island of Ireland is the only way the SDLP can survive. It will allow them to distinguish themselves from Sinn Féin to the point where voters see them as a credible alternative.
The SDLP are not a dead force, they are merely stagnant but there is still room in Northern Ireland for their party. It is not too late to save the SDLP but the necessary work needs to begin as soon as possible, or else they will find themselves in the political wilderness.
Joshua Murray is a MA Journalism student at Ulster University.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.