Jon Tonge: SDLP and Sinn Fein could swap unity manifestos and no one would notice
The SDLP meets in Bellaghy for its annual conference tomorrow, just 74 days before a tough Assembly election. Amid feverish focus on whether Sinn Fein becomes the biggest party and provides the prime minister – assuming an executive can be formed somehow – what can Colum Eastwood do? to improve the fortunes of his party?
In the region of 10-12%, the SDLP’s share of the nationalist vote is half that of its nationalist rival.
The party’s lack of talent is not the problem. Eastwood and Claire Hanna proved hugely popular in 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 of DUP MPs.
Within the executive, Nichola Mallon had a difficult mandate as Minister of Infrastructure but did not lack visibility.
At the Assembly, the SDLP’s miss ratio is probably one of the lowest.
Matthew O’Toole is no fool and brings Downing Street and Treasury experience.
East Derry’s Cara Hunter shows the party can still recruit young people and not be afraid to promote. Others, like South Down MP Colin McGrath and Daniel McCrossan in West Tyrone, are holding their ground.
But for what purpose do these abilities work? The SDLP finds it difficult to delineate its objective from that of a moderate Sinn Fein.
“A reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous new Ireland” is the vision of the SDLP.
Sinn Fein meanwhile declares itself the ‘United Ireland’ party and insists that “a new and united Ireland must be a place for all, whether you are Irish, British, or both or neither. Identity orange and british is important to part of the community that shares this island, so it is important to all of us”.
Parties could swap the unity sections of the manifesto and few would notice.
Sinn Fein’s structural advantages as an All-Ireland party are growing.
The party’s dramatic growth in the south came at a time when the SDLP was wondering what to do with its confinement in the north.
How does he “reconcile people in a united Ireland” when he only represents those in 20% of his counties?
And even more convincingly, how can the SDLP accomplish this task when it cannot agree within its own ranks on links with southern parties?
Two years ago, most party members voted in favor of a partnership with Fianna Fail. A sizeable dissenting minority, nearly a third of voters, wanted a broader arrangement than an exclusive tie-up with Micheal Martin’s party, seeking island-wide ties that would also encompass Fine Gael and Labour.
Claire Hanna has made clear her rejection of a Fianna Fail-SDLP deal and we have yet to hear much more about the idea of the remaining 50% of the SDLP Westminster team.
In fact, change that. We haven’t heard anything yet.
How much that will matter on May 5 is a moot point. Voters in Belfast might care a lot more about Nichola Mallon’s plans for everything from Casement Park to taxis than whether she wants to share a political bed with the soldiers of fate.
Foyle voters may care a lot more about what Sinead McLaughlin said about expanding college education in Derry or reducing hospital wait times than they do about Micheal Martin, of Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael or Alan Kelly, the Irish Labor leader, who would represent the best ideological kindred spirits.
But it remains true that, on Irish unity, the SDLP is closer to Sinn Fein than any of the other parties on the island at which it has batted an eyelash.
For the SDLP, there is an electoral deterrent to hitting on Irish unity.
The Eastwood party draws traffic across the ditch in a way Sinn Fein cannot. The largest contributor of identifiable votes transferred to the party in the last Assembly election was the UUP, with almost a quarter coming from this source. Sinn Fein provided 15% and Alliance 11%.
These UUP transfers helped push the SDLP down the line in several seats. In East Londonderry, the SDLP won almost 800 crucial votes following the elimination of William McCandless from the UUP.
In Lagan Valley, Pat Catney said thank you very much to almost a third of Robbie Butler’s surplus UUP vote, while in Upper Bann, Dolores Kelly used more than 1,800 votes from Doug Beattie’s surplus.
Sinn Fein secured 25. Such transfer generosity from the UUP to the SDLP, reciprocated at Fermanagh and South Tyrone, will again be needed for what has become a party of the late Earl.
Eastwood’s Sunday sermon is to demonstrate the SDLP’s continued relevance to young voters.
Older voters tend to stay loyal to the party. The latest Lucid Talk/Belfast Telegraph poll showed that among people aged 65 and over, the SDLP far ahead of Sinn Fein.
The problem for the SDLP leader is that his party lags behind its nationalist rival in all other age categories.
It’s all a long way since the first Assembly election in 1998, when John Hume’s SDLP won 177,963 votes, the biggest tally of any party. The party’s vote dropped in each subsequent Assembly election until 2017, when Eastwood’s party regained 12,000 votes, but did not increase its vote share.
The SDLP looks like a party that has enjoyed many years of glory, suffered very badly, recovered somewhat but seems unlikely to return to the heady victories of the past.
Maybe that Fianna Fail link makes sense after all.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power (Oxford University Press)