Opinion

Tom Kelly: When Stormont returns, the SDLP needs to up its game as the official opposition if it wants to survive

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly is an Irish News columnist with a background in politics and public relations. He is also a former member of the Policing Board.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with the MLAs elected for the party at last year's assembly election. If Stormont returns, the SDLP will need to be laser-focused on its opposition role. PICTURE: ARTHUR ALLISON/PACEMAKER PRESS
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with the MLAs elected for the party at last year's assembly election. If Stormont returns, the SDLP will need to be laser-focused on its opposition role. PICTURE: ARTHUR ALLISON/PACEMAKER PRESS SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with the MLAs elected for the party at last year's assembly election. If Stormont returns, the SDLP will need to be laser-focused on its opposition role. PICTURE: ARTHUR ALLISON/PACEMAKER PRESS

THE mood music is slowly changing. Even my Irish News colleague, Alex Kane, has worked some optimism into his recent musings.

The photos from Stormont during the recent US investment trip said it all – Michelle O'Neill, First Minister-in-waiting, flanked by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Naomi Long, had all the looks of a new Executive. A bit behind was the UUP and SDLP rearguard. There's little doubt the Assembly and Executive will now return – and, perhaps, before Christmas.

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The incoming administration is very much old wine in new bottles. Some players are gone but SF, DUP and Alliance are familiar with each other.

Apart from the symbolism of Sinn Féin holding the title of First Minister – which in the north is disproportionately overrated – the joint office of the Executive means both the DUP and SF will retain their mutual veto on each other.

UUP to enter Stormont executive

Of course, the UUP has indicated they will enter the administration alongside the three larger entities.

This is a peculiar decision, given that both the UUP and SDLP have been little more than useful mudguards in previous such administrations. Robin Swann received well deserved praise for his handling of the pandemic but in truth, the fundamental problems of the health service were not addressed during his tenure. Plus, there was no electoral bounce for the UUP despite the personal standing of Minister Swann.

Robin Swann's widely praised performance as health minister did not translate into an avalanche of votes for the UUP
Robin Swann's widely praised performance as health minister did not translate into an avalanche of votes for the UUP Robin Swann's widely praised performance as health minister did not translate into an avalanche of votes for the UUP

Thanks to transfers from the plethora of unionist parties and the large tract of unionist Alliance voters east of the Bann, the UUP is in a slightly stronger place than the SDLP. But only slightly.

It's never been clear to this writer why the SDLP entered the last Executive (or earlier ones) for the sake of a single fiscally hamstrung ministerial post.

SDLP efforts thwarted by ministerial colleagues

Neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP were ever going to let the SDLP shine in office. Margaret Ritchie tried her best but even when she went to pull the iniquitous Executive funding from going into the coffers of the UDA, she was thwarted by her ministerial colleagues.

Previous experience as political whipping boys should have taught the SDLP a bitter but not-to-be-forgotten lesson that political parties must chart their own course.

Mandatory coalitions actually create the conditions for poor government and even poorer scrutiny of bad administration. Good government needs a powerful opposition.

Read more:Newton Emerson: Has the SDLP given up on Stormont?

MLA defeats devastating loss for SDLP

The loss of four SDLP MLAs in Assembly elections was a devastating blow. The local government election results were equally diabolical. In both cases, the losses were heavier than party insiders predicted.

In reality, there appears to be two SDLPs contesting against each other. There's a legacy one which still thinks in terms of the glory days and which holds great antipathy towards Sinn Féin.

Then, there's a modern, more pragmatic SDLP grappling (with some limited but slow success) to adapt to its position in the evolving political circumstances, not just in the north but on the island of Ireland.

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In all honesty, Hume and Mallon would have struggled against such a backdrop. Mallon admitted as much in person and in his book. He simply couldn't comprehend the electoral squeeze on the SDLP.

SDLP leader John Hume and deputy leader Seamus Mallon, pictured in 1980 on Newcastle beach
SDLP leader John Hume and deputy leader Seamus Mallon, pictured in 1980 on Newcastle beach SDLP leader John Hume and deputy leader Seamus Mallon, pictured in 1980 on Newcastle beach

There remains one last roll of the dice to stabilise the fortunes of the SDLP and that depends on a restored Assembly and Executive with the party firmly ensconced as the opposition. This is a tall order for a political organisation reduced to eight MLAs out of a total of 90.

To succeed, the leadership needs the commitment from each MLA to be firing on all cylinders in order to scrutinise and hold to account nine sprawling government departments and their ministers.

In the current intake of SDLP MLAs, some are more match fit than others. The star players are at Westminster. The party needs to up its game.

Anyone interested in better government, good governance or who wishes to see Hume's vision of normal politics materialise, will wish them well. The politics of the past is a foreign country.