By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — An internal SDLP review has concluded that unless the party takes immediate drastic action, it will be overtaken as the largest nationalist party in the North by Sinn Fein, thanks largely to the leadership’s role in unselfishly advancing the peace process. The growing success of its political rival, Sinn Fein, has seen the SDLP’s position as the main nationalist party eroded to the point where it is now "a thing of the past."
The review came within a week of the party leader, John Hume, being honored by his native Derry. He was made a Freeman of the City — the 41st in its history (the last being Sir Winston Churchill).
The committee set up to look at modernizing the SDLP concluded that the party is perceived as tired, middle-aged, middle-class, lacking respect for its younger members and that its leadership has no enthusiasm for grass-roots politics.
Unionists have responded to the survey by advising the SDLP to ditch Sinn Fein, if the IRA won’t decommission, and go into government with them.
Some nationalist commentators say the SDLP is doomed to be overtaken, irrespective of the radical review, because of the new confidence enjoyed by young nationalists and their impatience for change.
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The SDLP itself says it has shown an unusual honesty for a political party in facing up to the challenges of the new political dispensation and that it is uniquely placed to reap the rewards of the peace process.
The strategic review, it says, will ensure its survival in changing times. The review has the full backing of its leadership.
The suggested overhaul includes a campaign to attract more young people and Protestants, setting up a Washington office, and a fund-raising drive aimed at top companies in the south of Ireland.
The recommendations also call for an updating of the party logo, an image overhaul and major restructuring. A recommendation to change the party’s name has been rejected, however.
The document, based on opinions of people inside and outside the party, also recommends strengthening the leader’s office and accused the leadership of not treating the membership with enough respect.
SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon last night confirmed the party’s proposed reorganization. "Their instructions were: Look, pull no punches. Tell us exactly what you think and we got that type of report," he said.
"It is essential for any organization at various stages to take a very deep look at their organization and structures. That is what we are doing and we have done it openly and honestly."
When Hume received the freedom of Derry on Monday, the ceremony was boycotted by Paisley’s DUP. Over the years he has been resented by many Unionists, who will never forgive him for once saying that unionism was a boil that must be lanced or, on the night of Bloody Sunday, that it was now "a united Ireland or nothing." They also castigate his role in the civil rights movement and his bridge building to the republican movement, which led to the current peace process.
The most outspoken critic of Hume’s political legacy is a fellow Derry citizen, Gregory Campbell, the DUP assemblyman for East Derry, who led the boycotting of Monday’s ceremonies.
Campbell accuses Hume of being personally responsible for ethnic cleansing on the city-side of the Foyle.
However, not all Unionists agreed with Campbell’s claims. Jim Guy, a former unionist mayor of Derry, did attend, saying that many Protestants would support the move, regardless of Hume’s nationalist politics.
He was joined by fellow independent unionist Andrew Davidson, who said, "I believe the feedback I got on the doorsteps was that people may have disagreed with what he did in the past, but there is a difference with what he did for them as people of the city."