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A Social Democratic and Labour Party press conference at the Tribine offices in Smithfield. (l-r) Austin Currie MP, Gerry Fitt MP, John Hume MP, Ivan Cooper MP and Paddy O'Hanlon. Behind them is Edward McGrady (left) and Paddy Devlin MP. PA

Analysis If the SDLP decline continues, Northern Ireland's politics will suffer

Ahead of the SDLP’s party conference this weekend, Emma DeSouza looks at its struggles to hold support in a polarised political landscape.

SINN FÉIN CONTINUES to solidify its lead as Northern Ireland’s largest party, attracting over 70 per cent of the Nationalist vote share according to a new survey by the Irish Institute.

In 1998, Northern Ireland’s nationalist Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP) commanded a comparable majority, but 25 years on, the party is being abandoned by nationalist voters, polling consistently at just 7 per cent since August. With a looming local election, can the party rebound?

Shift to the margins

The results of last year’s Assembly election, along with subsequent polling trends, reaffirm the emergence of a three-party state, with Sinn Féin at 30.6 per cent, the Democratic Unionist Party at 23.9 per cent, and the Alliance party at 15.4 per cent according to polling from the Irish Institute.

Political landscapes of this nature do not favour the weak, and the SDLP, alongside the Ulster Unionist Party to a lesser degree, have become casualties of this political shift.

For the SDLP the Assembly election cost the party their Deputy leader Nichola Mallon along with a third of its MLAs, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood remarked at the time that “the tide goes in, and the tide goes out”, claiming that the pull of a Nationalist First Minister resulted in traditional voters lending their votes to Sinn Féin.

However, as the Assembly election marked a fifth consecutive decline for the party, it would appear the tide has been out for the party for quite some time.

ulster-powersharing SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (left) and deputy leader Nichola Mallon speak to the media in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Stormont, as talks to resurrect the devolved government in Northern Ireland have been taking place. PA PA

The SDLP’s woes are not down to any one cause; Rather, the party is lacking across all four of the key principles of political success: Vision, Values, Vehicle, and Votes. The SDLP is navigating a political landscape that locks in identity politics, favouring the party most likely to take a seat from one community or another.

The designations and power-sharing structure established in 1998 were appropriate and revolutionary at the time, but in the long term, it has fostered an unhealthy electoral system that bolts in unionist and nationalist voting.

Removing or amending these structures could free the North’s electorate from feeling compelled to vote in such a way. In this regard, there is a modicum of reality in Eastwood’s statement, but rather than viewing this as a temporary exodus, the party should be recognising the long-term revolt and asking itself why its once strong base no longer sees them as a winning ticket.

Party vision

In terms of vision and values, the party has struggled to find its identity in a post-Good Friday Agreement landscape; Pre-1998, it was easy to separate the ideologies of Sinn Féin and the SDLP – today, not so much.

The party identifies itself as socially progressive and rooted in Labour values, but running candidates that are pro-life and attaching itself to the largely conservative Fianna Fáil in a now-failed partnership – stands at odds with that purported ethos. It’s now speculated that the SDLP may be in talks with Ireland’s Labour party, who are currently polling at just 5 per cent, on a similar partnership.

ulsterconcert-5 UUP leader David Trimble, then SDLP leader John Hume and Bono together on stage during a minute's silence in memory of all those who died in Northern Ireland, 1998. PA PA

Then there’s the vehicle and votes; Colum Eastwood is the youngest party leader in Northern Ireland, but his party continues to be represented largely by men over the age of 45, particularly at a council level. This is not a new problem for the SDLP; in 1983 R S Reeve of the NIO political affairs bureau referred to the party as being ”seen as rather middle-class, middle-aged and out of touch with the community.”

‘Old boys’ club’

In his eight years at the helm, Eastwood has not succeeded in attracting the North’s next generation of political leaders, or perhaps, not managed to make space for them, as the perception of the party as an old boys’ club continues to endure.

With women making up only 25 per cent of the SDLP’s Assembly team and 30 per cent of councillors, the party should have prioritised increasing women’s representation in the upcoming local elections.

Instead, a disproportionately high number of male candidates fill the ballot; All six candidates are men in Lisburn and Castlereagh, and in Fermanagh and South Tyrone there is only one woman on a ballot of seven.

The party’s predilection for middle-class men over 45 is also borne out in the New Ireland Commission, a new structure created by the party in 2020 which has so far proven largely ineffective, seemingly down to a lack of resources, priority, and direction. Women are also outnumbered two-to-one in a New Ireland Commission expert reference panel announced by the SDLP in 2021, in which only two members are 35 or under, and just one member is from an ethnic-minority background. 

By contrast, Northern Ireland’s Alliance party has acted as a magnet for the next generation, with 50 per cent of their elected MLAs aged below 40, and a further 50 per cent of women MLAs. The difference? Alliance has intentionally sought out and platformed new and upcoming members, with MLAs Eoin Tennyson (24) and Connie Egan (28) regularly rolled out by the party for broadcast, radio, and events in the years running up to the Assembly election. To be it, “you have to see it”; The more Alliance platforms women and their younger candidates and representatives, the more attractive a political home the party has become for younger demographics, both at the ballot box and for those considering an entry to the political arena.

brexit Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, speaks to the media in Templepatrick, Co Antrim, after meeting with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak February 28, 2023. PA PA

The SDLP is coasteering on the brink of a terminal decline, and should it fall off that ledge, Northern Ireland won’t be the better for it; Nationalism benefits from a broad church. Unfortunately for the party, the damage is done; May’s local election will serve as yet another missed opportunity to shirk off its conservative past with predictions that the party could lose up to 20 seats.

The slogan for the party’s annual conference this weekend is “The Movement for a New Ireland”, but without the right vision, values, and vehicle, this movement is unlikely to gain the momentum necessary to even get off the ground.

Emma DeSouza is a writer and campaigner. She ran as an independent candidate in the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

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