Northern Ireland

Next steps are crucial for the future of the SDLP

What happens in the next 12 months could make or break the SDLP. Political Correspondent John Manley assesses the challenges facing Colum Eastwood's party...

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (centre) with party colleagues Claire Hanna and Matthew O’Toole. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (centre) with party colleagues Claire Hanna and Matthew O’Toole. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA

There's been no shortage of difficulties in the SDLP's 53-year history but the challenges it faces today are arguably its greatest ever. How the next 12 months play out is crucial for the future of the party that was once northern nationalism's strongest voice. 

It's 25 years since the SDLP's highpoint with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. John Hume, Séamus Mallon, Mark Durkan and many others deserve enormous credit for shaping and delivering the peace agreement but in many ways they were the inadvertent architects of their own demise. Many of the party's current difficulties stem from that era and the failure to plan for succession, while there's also a sense that there's too much harking back to 1998's achievements.

Within three years of the accord, Sinn Féin had became nationalism's biggest party and the story for the SDLP in the decades since, one or two exceptions notwithstanding, has been one of steady decline. Recent polling suggests the downward trajectory will continue, though there are signs of hope and evidence that with the right personnel and attitude, the trend can be reversed. The optimists point to Séamas de Faoite's victory in east Belfast, where he not only held his seat in the local government elections but increased his vote significantly.

"The peace settlement the SDLP designed hasn't been good for the party in terms of electoral support and nothing illustrates this better then the two bruising electoral cycles they've just come through," says Slugger O'Toole deputy editor David McCann of the 2022 assembly election and this year's local government election.

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The SDLP lost 20 seats in May's council elections, leaving it with 39 local government representatives, compared to Sinn Féin's 144. The party also fell behind Alliance in terms of council chamber representation for the first time in its history, highlighting today's unprecedented competitiveness in the middle ground. 

A year earlier, the SDLP emerged from the Stormont election with eight MLAs, four fewer than the previous mandate. Next year the party will contest a general election, defending seats in Foyle and South Belfast. Hopes of taking a third Westminster seat appear too ambitious, which in many ways highlights one of the main problems for a party for which power is concentrated in its leader's home city and in South Belfast, the north's most diverse constituency. 

"The forthcoming general election will be all about holding on to its two seats, rather than making any gains – that's the reality rather than the preferred strategy," says David McCann. The Irish News columnist also suggests that in many ways both Westminster seats were won on the basis of the candidates' personalities and capabilities, as opposed to people backing the party brand.  

Séamas de Faoite, right, with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
Séamas de Faoite, right, with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

"People tend to talk about Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna winning seats rather than the SDLP, which is grand for those two constituencies but it's not helping candidates elsewhere," he says.

Ask any two political observers what the SDLP's difficulties are and you'll likely get two completely different answers – though both will identify myriad issues. While it's generally agreed that there are a range of internal problems which need addressing, there's an acknowledgement that the party is a victim of external factors over which it has no control. The latter includes the focus in assembly elections on who will be first minister, a contest that appears to benefit Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Yet there's also a general acceptance that a change of leadership would do little to change the situation, with Colum Eastwood widely regarded as the party's most effective figurehead since John Hume. However, like his late predecessor, the Foyle MP faces accusations from within his own ranks that he suffers from 'Derryitis', putting too much focus and spending too much time in the north-west.

Claire Hanna after winning the South Belfast seat in 2019. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Claire Hanna after winning the South Belfast seat in 2019. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

The internal issues highlighted range from organisational and administration concerns to the failure to convey a coherent message about what the party stands for. Compared to its larger nationalist rival, the SDLP is poorly resourced and suffers from an ageing image. On top of this, there's the political reality that when your fortunes are ailing, the electorate tends to desert you.

Party leader Colum Eastwood had hoped the partnership with Fianna Fáil announced in early 2019 would've have created new all-Ireland dynamism, however, the project was effectively strangled at birth due to internal opposition. 

The party's New Ireland Commission is ambitious in its scope and not entirely deterministic in its approach to the potential for constitutional change. 

Former SDLP vice-chair Tom Kelly believes the commission is good in principle but has been slow to gain traction. He also argues that there needs to be greater engagement across the island.

Matthew O'Toole
Matthew O'Toole

"There is definitely something in the idea of the commission but I think they need to be linking up with the other democratic parties in the Republic that they identify with," he says.

"They should create their own New Ireland Forum, which like its predecessor would look at a number of options, giving it more weight and meaning." 

The party also hopes to carve a distinct identity for itself as the official opposition in a restored assembly, led by Matthew O'Toole. The SDLP previously opted for opposition, alongside the UUP, after the 2016 election, while on this occasion the move is enforced due to its failure to reach the seat threshold for a place in the executive.

Anna Mercer, deputy director at political consultancy Stratagem, believes it would be to the SDLP's advantage if they were joined by Doug Beattie's party.

"It would be mutually beneficial for both parties, I believe, enabling them to demonstrate a better working relationship than the executive parties, while at the same time presenting a counter narrative," she says.

"Opposition isn't the natural home of the SDLP, as a lot of their policy ideas are sound and resonate with the electorate, but it may well be the platform that allows the party to rebuild."

The strategy of staying out of the executive and taking a long view may well see the party's fortunes reversed one day but there are immediate hurdles to be overcome to ensure that can happen.