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The SDLP and leader Colum Eastwood are facing a decisive election. Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images
Northern Ireland

'Brexit is the biggest show in town': The SDLP is banking on Brexit delivering election success in 2019

The party currently has no MPs and wants to change that in a few months time.

A GENERAL ELECTION can’t come quick enough for the SDLP.

After years of relatively dismal polling, the party is hoping that by avowedly backing a remain line on Brexit it can steal back a seat or two in the North and at the same time banish the lingering questions about its long-term survival. 

The 2017 election was about as disastrous as it gets for the party that helped broker the Good Friday Agreement. It lost all three seats in Westminster, including in its spiritual home of Derry, leaving the DUP as the loudest voice representing Northern Ireland on Brexit in the House of Commons. 

It suffered something of an existential crisis since then, negotiating a somewhat ambiguous partnership with Fianna Fáil – a relationship that didn’t stop former leader Mark Durkan running for Fine Gael in the European elections. 

The party, which is led by the 36-year-old Colum Eastwood, is hoping that the next election can see a reversal of fortunes. 

The hopes aren’t unfounded. While it suffered defeat across Northern Ireland, the SDLP didn’t see its vote collapse in 2017. Its overall vote share only fell by 2.2%, while in key constituencies like Foyle and Belfast South candidates only just missed out by the smallest of margins. 

New hope

Belfast South is one of those seats where the SDLP hopes to make gains. Claire Hanna, who resigned the party whip over the Fianna Fáil partnership, will run in the general election. 

Hanna has a good chance. Former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell lost out to the DUP by only 2,000 votes in 2017 and hopes are high that the party will suffer for its dogged approach to Brexit and the backstop since 2017. 

“People know Brexit is the biggest show in town,” Hanna tells  

Even if there is a deal by the time of the next election, Hanna thinks this focus still make sense. “I compare it to after devolution in 1998. There was still plenty to do in Westminster,” she says. 

She says that a new-look SDLP is making a difference on doorsteps, where people are worrying about no-deal, direct rule and devolution. 

But she also rejects the idea that there was something wrong with the party’s brand in 2017. “A lot of other parties have moved onto the SDLP’s ground. It wasn’t that it was a bad message,” she says. 

ulster-assembly-election-2016 The SDLP has high hopes that Claire Hanna can take a seat in Belfast South Liam McBurney / PA Archive/PA Images Liam McBurney / PA Archive/PA Images / PA Archive/PA Images

This message, however, isn’t exclusive to the SDLP. Both Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party are firmly anti-Brexit and it’s the latter party that might pose the biggest threat to the SDLP in the next election. 

“This is going to be a pretty substantial election for the SDLP,” says David McCann, commentator and deputy editor of Slugger O’Toole, a Northern Irish politics website.

The party, which he says has succeeded in attracting younger candidates but has done less well in enamoring younger voters, will need to make all the use it can of its remain, non-abstention bona fides in the coming weeks. 

But banking on Brexit is not a risk-free strategy. Not only might other issues, such as abortion, drag the party back into a touchy area – it’s pro-life but gives representatives a free vote – but it has plenty of competition from other parties when it comes to an anti-Brexit banner. 

“The SDLP has a slightly better narrative going into the election,” says McCann. “They also have a bit of momentum.”

But the presence of another unequivocally remain party “does muddy the water”. 

“If you’re a remain voter, the SDLP isn’t your only home to go to”, McCann predicts, pointing to the recent success of Alliance. 

Pro-remain, anti-sectarian and without the baggage of Sinn Féin, the party has been attracting younger voters particularly in the east of Northern Ireland.

Alliance leader Naomi Long pulled off a remarkable performance in the European elections, gathering 170,000 votes and coming in third behind the DUP and Sinn Féin to get elected as the region’s third MEP. 

Hanna says she isn’t looking over her shoulder at the party’s candidate in south Belfast Paula Bradshaw. While she praised how Long has transformed the party, Hanna is confident that she can take back the seat. 

“I’m not focused on the Alliance. I believe no one knows Brexit better than me,” she says. “Our party messages are similar but I’m asking people to trust that I’ll be the best voice to have that platform.”

If people don’t trust the SDLP this time? Expect talk of a split, a merger with Fianna Fáil and possibly the end of a political project that weathered the civil rights movement, the Troubles and years of fractious divides.

Simply put, the party is facing into the most dramatic period in its existence. 

Next week will look at how the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party are preparing for a general election. 

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