By pressuring Labour to stand down, the SDLP now has a moral responsibility to be the party Labour members sought to build: a non-sectarian, centre-left party that can usher in a new era of progressive politics in Northern Ireland. Many of my Labour friends will wince when I say this, and probably call me naïve, but maybe progressives should give the SDLP a chance? It is, after all, Labour’s sister party, and a closer partnership between the two parties could open up new avenues for progressive policies to emerge here in Northern Ireland.
The impetus is now on the SDLP to demonstrate to progressive voters that it can be a non-sectarian social democratic party that delivers on key areas like social security and social equity. It needs to give some clear indication that it is ready to make the necessary changes to attract new voters and members by building consensus around shared progressive values rather than communal identities. This means it must make space for new ideas, but also hold firm to old ones. To quote from the party’s first leader, Gerry Fitt, the SDLP must affirm what it set out to be: ‘a social democratic and labour party that would engage the sympathies across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland.’1
The constitutional issue is important, and the SDLP clearly isn’t going to give up its nationalist designation in the Assembly, but surely, for a labour party, issues like job creation, fair wages, child poverty, and protecting the welfare state must come first in times like these? The green agenda isn’t attracting new members or voters, and polls indicate that interest in changing the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is at an all-time low. Even the SDLP party leadership appear more post-nationalist than nationalist, using the language of a federalist New Ireland that maintains power-sharing institutions, rather than a United Ireland. So why, on the official party website, under its sprawling list of twenty Ideas, does ‘United Ireland’ rank number one?
It’s not a new idea to put the United Ireland agenda on the back burner; just look back to the November 2003 Assembly elections, where the commitment to constitutional change came at the end of a list of SDLP pledges that included policing, economic growth, jobs, poverty, schools, hospitals, water charges and other important bread-and-butter issues. I don’t want the SDLP to water down its Nationalist identity, if that’s what the majority of people want from their party—despite what David Ford said on Radio Ulster last month, you can be both liberal AND unionist or nationalist. But the party might find new energy by foregrounding its progressive values.
The SDLP could channel its all-Ireland energies into building a stronger North-South regional economy and building North-South political partnerships on key issues like transportation and agriculture. In past manifestos, the SDLP has shown a preference for North-South speak rather than the language of a United Ireland, but the website still reflects the green agenda strategy. For example, making the Acht na Gaeilge (Irish Language Act) your second idea out of twenty with no accompanying English-language translation does little for the promotion of the Irish language, and very little for centre-left politics. And this is coming from an Irish-language enthusiast who believes passionately in protecting minority languages.
In a 2006 article, Jon Tonge argues that “the essential problem for the SDLP lies in the perception that it has now achieved its goals and can thus exit the stage.”2 I hope this perception is wrong. The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement should mark the beginning, not the end of progressive politics, which is exactly what is needed right now. Northern Ireland is suffering from some of the worst unemployment in recent decades and more than 100,000 children are growing up in poverty. People need a strong-willed, centre-left party to stand up for the vulnerable, create jobs, and defend the welfare state.
Talking with some in the SDLP, I get the sense big changes are on the way. I certainly hope so, because the UK has become a model example of what not to do during times of recession. Austerity isn’t working, and neither are thousands of people who can’t get jobs. Fewer resources on the ground means increased communal tensions in interface areas. The SDLP needs to demonstrate it understands the hurt and anger people feel while offering much needed hope and moral leadership. Communicate and demonstrate to progressive voters you stand for Respect, Equity, Equality, Collective Responsibility, Compassionate and Effective Government, and Cooperation, and they just might stand with you. This is what Labour hoped to accomplish, can the SDLP fill the void?
(1,2) Jon Tonge, “Polarisation or new moderation? Party politics since the GFA,” A Farewell to Arms? Beyond the Good Friday Agreement, Second Edition By Michael Cox, Adrian Guelke, Fiona Stephen