Monday, May 01, 2006

SDLP only has itself to blame

Daily Ireland:

Our front page story today makes grim reading for the SDLP. A leaked internal party document shows that membership of the party fell catastrophically in the three years between 2002 and 2005.

From 3,386 members three years ago, party membership today stands at 2,196, with numbers going into freefall in some strongly nationalist constituencies. This is particularly the case in west Belfast where there are in existence only 24 paid-up members of the party. In Foyle, a seat which Mark Durkan managed to hold on to last year, membership has fallen by well over two-thirds at a time when having a local man as party leader might have been expected to bolster support.

Republicans jokingly refer to the SDLP as the South Down and Londonderry Party after the party’s poor showing in the last Westminster elections. The prospects of the party holding its remaining two Westminster seats would be slim enough if the party had a large and healthy membership helping drive the SDLP forward. But with the party clearly in a state of chaos, it would be a foolish person indeed who would bet on Mark Durkan and Eddie McGrady both being returned next time round.

It’s not hard to see where the problems arise. In west Belfast, for example, where there aren’t enough members to stage a charity football game, the party insists on giving its full backing to the PSNI despite the force’s shambolic performance on the ground in working-class streets and estates.

The party’s championing of the PSNI does not go down well among people who are reading the paper or watching the teatime news with a car on fire outside their door and a crowd of drinkers and glue sniffers at their gable wall. Against a background of chaos and lawlessness in such areas, how many men and women will step forward to join the party? Not many, we suspect, and not many is the answer provided by the statistics.

Then there’s the internal squabbling, best illustrated by the resignation from office of senior party member Eddie Espie and the estrangement of the north Belfast young Turk Martin Morgan. They have had scathing things to say about the organisation and direction of the party, and instead of being earnestly listened to by party chiefs, they have found themselves vilified and ostracised. They have many challenging things to say about the party which many within the SDLP do not like, but if the SDLP is serious about regaining ground lost to Sinn Fein, it is going to have take on board robust criticism from people like Espie and Morgan, which, these figures suggest, is entirely justified. Then there’s the total mess that was the ditching of post-nationalism in favour of wrap-the-green-flag-round-me republicanism. People are not stupid.

They know that in politics you should only choose battles you can win, and for the SDLP to presume that it could convince people that it could take on and beat Sinn Fein in the fight for the right to don the republican mantle was folly indeed.



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