Category: Archive

Analysis: The challenge ahead for SDLP

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

With the election results looming, pundit after pundit had lined up to sound the death knell for Mark Durkan’s seemingly beleaguered party.
Sinn Fein would devastate the SDLP, they said. If West Tyrone, where the SDLP was overwhelmed by republican forces in 2001, was billed as “Stalingrad”, they opined, then leader Mark Durkan’s battle in Foyle was akin to that at the “gates of Berlin.”
With Durkan gone, his party would disintegrate. Eddie McGrady, a 69 year-old, would be the party’s only voice in London. Fianna Fail would be gathering at the border, ready to come North and pick over the carcass.
It didn’t happen. Durkan saw off Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin with a comfortable majority. For days the Sinn Fein machine had uncharacteristically talked up its man’s chances — so much so, that commentators far and wide assumed that republicans were assured of toppling the SDLP in the city that spawned the party.
The symbolism of a Durkan defeat would have been too much for the SDLP to contemplate. John Hume had held the Foyle constituency since its inception in the 1980s. The civil rights movement, which so many of the SDLP’s leading lights were a key part of, was born there. It was, and still is, the bastion of modern constitutional nationalism.
That most certainly cannot be said of South Belfast. The predominantly Protestant constituency has never elected anyone other than a unionist — that was, until Friday. Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP deputy leader and local doctor, can now lay claim to being the first nationalist MP to represent the denizens of leafy Stranmillis and the Malone Road.
McDonnell squeezed through the middle of two unionists — the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt and the Ulster Unionists’ Michael McGimpsey — to claim an unlikely victory.
The SDLP could be forgiven for thinking that it’s here to stay.
Its former leaders John Hume and Seamus Mallon, who represented nationalist interests in Westminster for over twenty years, have made way for two new leaders who will now take their seats in the British parliament.
SDLP strategists can now point to their three MPs and claim, “we haven’t gone away, you know.”
And they’d be right. While the overall SDLP vote slipped again last week, the party’s core support remained fairly solid. Ignoring the disastrous showings by candidates in West Tyrone and Fermanagh/South Tyrone, the party managed to get its vote out, thus stemming the Sinn Fein tide.
While the party claimed before last year’s European elections that it had learnt the lessons of 2003’s Assembly defeats, only now does it appear to have discovered how to run a successful campaign under duress.
Gone was the bravado and inherited arrogance of previous years. The SDLP knew it was in trouble unless it grabbed the bull by the horns.
But as SDLP activists reflect on their relative successes they need to be aware of the coming challenges.
South Down — for so long the impenetrable fortress of Eddie McGrady — will be up for contention in the next general election. McGrady, who is touching 70, is unlikely to again run for the constituency. Sinn Fein, meanwhile continues to eat into the SDLP majority there, and Caitriona Ruane, building upon previous results, again cut McGrady back.
The SDLP needs to find a viable replacement for McGrady and fast.
In South Belfast, the SDLP will probably not repeat the same trick twice. McDonnell’s victory came about after the DUP, breaking an unwritten code of conduct with the UUP, decided to run a candidate and split the unionist vote.
Given the present trajectory of the UUP, it may not even run a candidate in South Belfast in the next election, paving the way for the DUP to take the seat.
Foyle, it seems, is the party’s only real safe seat. Durkan surprised many, including SDLP supporters, with the degree of his victory, and while unionist votes no doubt played a part, it is also obvious that nationalists clearly opted for the SDLP man.
The SDLP certainly escaped the disastrous slide in support that many had expected. However if it fails to maintain its newfound tenacity when it comes to fighting elections in the future, then those pre-written political obituaries might just again be dug out of the filing cabinet.

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