Newton Emerson: Has the SDLP given up on Stormont?

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with party colleagues at Parliament Buildings, Stormont
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with party colleagues at Parliament Buildings, Stormont

Anyone could be excused for giving up on devolution, either in the hope of something better or just in despair. But the post-Stormont turn the SDLP has suddenly taken has an appearance of cynicism – of a positioning manoeuvre to distinguish itself from Sinn Féin and Alliance.

Sinn Féin wants Stormont back, at least for a while, to garner the benefits of leading an executive and potentially of being in office on both sides of the border. Some of its stauncher supporters may gloat at the demise of devolution but every party statement sticks scrupulously to the line that Stormont must return because it is what voters want and what public services require. Many statements add or allude to the idea that good regional government serves the goal of a united Ireland and certainly does not conflict with it.

Perhaps Sinn Féin is being cynical, taking a cost-free constructive stance while the DUP wrecks Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin sounded distinctly post-devolution after it collapsed Stormont in 2017, for which it was initially rewarded at the polls. The party opposes reform of Stormont’s vetoes, claiming it cannot bear the thought of a world without unionist inclusion, no sirree.

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Cynical or not, pro-devolution positivity is Sinn Féin’s message to the electorate. How does the SDLP compete? Its answer had been to provide official opposition, a role it was forced into by seat losses last year.

The SDLP’s only other significant rival for votes is Alliance, with intense competition in several constituencies.

Alliance distinguishes itself from Sinn Féin by seeking Stormont reform. It wants a tweak to the rules to bypass the DUP boycott, followed by talks on reform as anticipated in the Good Friday Agreement. The party’s ultimate aim is removing the designation system, which it has always opposed. Although this is hard to foresee, Alliance has seized the agenda on reform and will seem to many voters to own the issue.

The SDLP had been developing separate reform proposals based around replacing community vetoes with a two-thirds majority requirement for key decisions, including appointing the first and deputy first ministers. This is also grounded in the Agreement, which the SDLP lays particular claim to own.

However, the party has now apparently lost faith in reform and in devolution overall, issuing sombre declarations that Stormont seems doomed and no fiddling with the rules can save it. Party statements sorrowfully indicate the SDLP has tried its best but alas must urge everyone to consider alternative interim arrangements while moving forward to a united Ireland.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

This is clearly an attempt at triangulation: taking a position between two viewpoints and also above then. The hope is that Sinn Féin and Alliance will argue over the grubby details of Stormont reform while the party of John Hume stands aloof and outlines nationalism’s larger vision.

Triangulation is a strategy associated with the Clinton White House. It is horrendously plausible there was an SDLP meeting where a triangle was drawn on a whiteboard while the theme tune to The West Wing played in everyone’s head.

Of course, it is a serious matter for a founding party of the Good Friday Agreement to even hint it is in a post-Stormont mindset. Realistically, it signals a post-Agreement mindset, as abandoning devolution would require a complete renegotiation of how Northern Ireland is governed.

The SDLP might judge its electoral plight leaves it little choice, yet an obvious alternative remains available that is in the Agreement’s spirit, is already permitted by its letter and is far more likely to deliver results.

The SDLP could build a common platform with Alliance and the UUP – a real opposition, with a third of the vote in last year’s assembly election. Sinn Féin and the DUP won 50.3 per cent combined, a wafer-thin majority against reform.

There is a battle here that can still be won. But the SDLP gave up on it years ago.