Monday, May 09, 2005

SDLP failures hid by relative success

Brian Feeney:

At first sight it would appear that the SDLP has pulled the fat out of the fire. Against all expectations they have managed to emerge from the British general election with their number of seats unchanged.

In a titanic struggle with Sinn Féin Mark Durkan saved the seat carved out for John Hume. As everyone expected, Eddie McGrady won in South Down and the internecine in war in unionism gifted Alasdair McDonnell South Belfast.

The SDLP lives to fight another day. This election was do or die for them, especially for Durkan whose victory will give his reputation as party leader a much-needed boost after failures in 2003 assembly and 2004 European elections. Winning South Belfast would not have compensated for the loss of Foyle and the totemic role the SDLP gains from being the dominant party in the north's largest nationalist urban area.

The immediate euphoria of the victories, and Foyle was a tremendous win because Sinn Féin threw everything at it including the kitchen sink, will conceal the demise of the party's fortunes elsewhere, most obviously the loss of Seamus Mallon's Newry/Armagh seat. The three Westminster seats will also distract attention from the swing from the SDLP to Sinn Féin of about 4.5% across the north.

We still can't answer for the council election results, but if the same pattern reads across from the Westminster votes, Monday and Tuesday will see huge SDLP losses, with north and west Belfast and Newry and Mourne particularly bad, though the SDLP will do better than their raw first preferences would suggest because they benefit from transfers as Sinn Féin does not.

The council figures will also allow people to calculate how many unionists voted tactically for the SDLP in Foyle and South Down, though indications are neither Durkan nor McGrady needed them.

So the general election changed nothing on the nationalist side. Yesterday's (Friday) results alter nothing about the shape of the negotiations which will inevitably restart in the autumn between the DUP, SF and the two governments. The assembly elections of 2003 established those two parties as the ones which control parallel consent in the assembly and without whom there can be no executive. Dublin and London have no choice but to proceed on that basis.

Looking further to the future however, it is clear that neither SF, dominant in votes and seats in Westminster, assembly and councils nor the powerfully reinforced DUP, will go back into the assembly elected in 2003. Why would they? To do so would mean giving a leg-up to the political opponents they defeated yesterday. Why give ministerial positions to defeated rivals? What is likely to happen instead is a new assembly election, perhaps in 2006, to ratify any deal struck between SF and the DUP. That election will confirm the new status quo and will give SF and the DUP a clean sweep.

However there is a new reality in the north. The big news is not the survival of the SDLP as a parliamentary party. The UUP has imploded. Their council election results will be a blood bath. As a result, you'll see a lot of UUP councillors who do survive next week jumping ship and joining the DUP. They'll be followed by sitting assembly members. There's no future in the UUP. It's literally history. Consequently any new assembly will see Sinn Féin with a small minority of ministers, perhaps three, and the SDLP with none.

The Westminster seats the SDLP won yesterday do nothing to provide a solution to the dilemma the SDLP has been unable to solve in recent years, namely what the SDLP is for once the republican movement had ended its military struggle and Sinn Féin had adopted peaceful and democratic means as the way forward. Only SF could complete the peace process and deliver the IRA.

Any attacks the SDLP launched on republicans only made them sound more like unionists and certainly could not shift the IRA one millimetre.

With the Irish government telling everyone there will be no progress until the IRA stands down and decommissions its weapons, what can the SDLP do to advance politics in the north if devolution is the name of the game?

The sooner that Nationalists realize that they can no longer afford the luxury of two political parties and get behind Sinn Fein the better.


At 4:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree .

Just as long as Republicans don't support them !

Sharon .


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