Patrick Murphy: SDLP needs to listen and learn to survive - The Irish News
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Patrick Murphy: SDLP needs to listen and learn to survive

SDLP candidates pictured at the launch of the party's assembly election campaign at Oxford Island Nature Reserve outside Lurgan earlier this year; the party has many bridges to cross if it is to have a healthy future. Picture by Mal McCann.

SO, how do you solve a problem like the SDLP? The party which once had a monopoly of nationalist votes is no longer a significant player in northern politics and it now faces an uncertain future.

It is no longer represented in Europe or Westminster. In European elections, its vote fell from 190,000 in 1999 to 81,000 in 2014. In Assembly elections, it fell from 22 per cent in 1998, to 12 per cent this year.

If this rate of decline continues, the party will have no MLAs in about 15 years.

Faced with that reality, the SDLP has three choices: die, re-brand or merge. All three will mean the end of the SDLP as it has existed for 47 years. If it does not act immediately, its options will be reduced to one - dying.

Death will come by delusion, mainly by looking inwards and claiming how well the party is doing: we are attracting younger members; we have a new leader; we are re-building.

True to form, this newspaper recently reported that the party is planning a "grassroots re-build". A leaked report revealed plans to appoint a convenor for each district council area, to "co-ordinate party renewal across that footprint". They will be supported by "co-ordinators for voter engagement".

Language like that suggests that the party might not be fully aware of the nature or scale of its problems, especially when it urges members to "embrace party renewal". It is a bit like painting your shop front in the hope of competing with the giant supermarket next door.

While organisation and structure are important, the SDLP can never match Sinn Féin in terms of resources and personnel.

But its main problem is that it has tried (and spectacularly failed) to sell the same political products as its dominant rival - even though the SDLP was first to market most of them.

The north's political marketplace is not big enough for two constitutional nationalist parties, particularly in a climate of growing sectarianism.

In that context, the SDLP's second option is to re-brand, both in terms of product and image. Its obvious option is to move to the left, maybe not as far as Jeremy Corbyn, but to create and fill a market sector to challenge the established order.

The inequalities of globalisation have sparked a wave of varying forms of protest across western societies, as evidenced by Corbyn's popularity, riots in Germany, Macron's election in France and, ironically, Sinn Fein's rise in the south.

In other countries, anger is directed upwards at those in power, but here Sinn Féin and the DUP divert it sideways towards "the other side". It is a big ask for anyone to counter that trend, but it can be done. After all, the SDLP's move into opposition left Sinn Féin so exposed in Stormont that it was eventually forced to collapse the Assembly.

However, the party's socially conservative origins are likely to suffocate radical politics.

That just leaves merger, not with the giant supermarket next door, but with that well-known Dublin supermarket, Fianna Fáil.

Like Jack Lynch's use of the Irish army in 1969, Fianna Fáil has been threatening to come north for some time. Rather than compete with the SDLP, it might be easier to absorb the party into their ranks. Fianna Fáil would then become an all-Ireland party, with representation in Stormont - if it ever returns.

That would allow them to head off Sinn Féin's electoral threat, north and south, and it would give Fianna Fáil an insight into Stormont which it would find helpful in Dáil debates.

For the SDLP, it would mean additional organisational ability, a higher media profile and a new level of influence in Dublin.

For the first time in 20 years, it could compete with Sinn Féin and claim the inheritance of de Valera's election victory in South Down in 1933.

Of course, neither Fianna Fáil nor the SDLP may wish to merge. It would mean the end of the SDLP - but so does every other option - and it would bring Fianna Fáil into the quagmire of northern politics.

Right now, however, merger is the only serious option which will preserve the SDLP, in spirit if not in name.

Like the Catholic Church, the party has been slow to recognise the reality of its demise. Both organisations have taken exception to critical observations of that reality, however well intentioned.

A refusal to listen will always get you what you want, but it will not necessarily produce what is best for you.

It is time for the SDLP to listen - and learn - because the electorate is certainly not listening to it.

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