The South Down and Londonderry Party are dead men walking. The poor fuckers just don’t know it yet.
Although I suspect Mark Durkan might have an inkling. It’s the only interpretation I can put on Durko’s decision, at the ripe old age of 49, to announce he’s standing down from the party leadership some time next year. And the manner of his doing so raises some questions in itself.
Firstly, Durko has said that his top priority is to defend his Foyle constituency at the Westminster election. Although he’s an effective MP, this may not be a foregone conclusion, and I suspect Martina Anderson will give him a run for his money. The SDLP should have learnt by now to be wary of setting up Battles of Stalingrad in advance – Bríd Rodgers’ run in West Tyrone in 2001 was supposed to be the SDLP’s Stalingrad, only it turned out to be more like the Charge of the Light Brigade – but there’s no doubt that losing Derry, even by a whisker, would be a psychological blow from which the SDLP would find it difficult to recover.
Actually, the next Westminster election looks like being pretty hairy all round for the SDLP. Alasdair McDonnell’s position in South Belfast is shaky in the extreme, being dependent on a) his ability to put a serious squeeze on Alex Maskey and b) a fairly even split in the unionist vote – if either the DUP or UCUNF candidates pulls decisively ahead of the other, Alasdair is toast. In South Down, things are unpredictable: Eddie McGrady still hasn’t indicated whether he’ll stand again (he’s almost as old as Big Ian, but the Dochtúir Mór seems to fancy another run in North Antrim), and Caitríona Ruane is not the hot prospect she looked before becoming education minister. In the five Shinner-held seats, the SDLP are so far behind they may as well not bother. So some fairly marginal considerations could determine whether the SDLP come out of it with three seats or none.
No, I think Durko, who’s a fairly likeable, intelligent and capable guy, has seen the writing on the wall. He may have been John Hume’s anointed successor, but St John left him with a party in what may be politely termed a shambles – to the extent that it’s a party at all.
There are two issues here, the organisational and the sociological. Organisationally speaking, the SDLP was always defined by local fiefdoms. It was thus in the days of Gerry Fitt, who managed to con the London media into thinking he was some great socialist, but whose base in West Belfast was maintained by a potent mixture of parish-pump clientelism, widespread electoral fraud and, when the occasion warranted it, strident sectarian tubthumping – Gerry’s “organisation” basically consisted of his indefatigable wife Anne. In the rural areas, the SDLP organisation followed a predictable pattern. In a given area, you’d have a local worthy – perhaps a doctor, solicitor or head teacher – who would have done something in the civil rights movement and had been dining out on it ever since. He would have enough standing in his area to get elected onto the council on name recognition alone, but wouldn’t bother his arse building a branch. In fact, building a branch would be regarded with suspicion as possibly building up a rival. The “branch” would thus consist of a handful of his friends and family who would knock on doors at election time.
So you have a situation where Alasdair McDonnell gets a big vote out of Malone and Stranmillis, but it’s almost impossible to get anyone in South Belfast to join the SDLP – the party seems to barely exist in the area outside elections, despite Alasdair claiming enough in Westminster and Stormont allowances to employ a small army of workers. No, the party coasted along for many years on its local personalities, on the high public regard for St John Hume, and above all, on being the default option for nationalists who wanted a non-violent option on the ballot paper. The retirement of the big names and the increased respectability of the Provos has knocked the feet out from under them, and it’s no surprise that they are increasingly confined to Derry and South Down, the two areas where they did have a machine, and some middle-class ghettos in Greater Belfast.
(We may parenthetically note that the party’s 20-year control of Queens Students Union – which is as weird, in British terms, as UKIP controlling a students union – drew on the default option, as republican activism was banned and so the Catholic majority would vote for whatever Catholic candidate was available. Whatever about their ruthless use of incumbency advantage and patronage, once republicans were legalised the numerically small SDLP couldn’t hang on for long.)
But if we turn to the sociological aspect, there’s obviously a gap in the market for a Catholic party that isn’t called Sinn Féin. Even in the Republic of West Belfast, there are layers of people – often middle class, yes, but also located in the more respectable end of the working class – who would be boiled in oil before they’d vote Provo. But these layers are relatively middle-aged and elderly – those under 30, if they vote at all, only vote for one party – and are thoroughly demoralised. Between 1996 and 2007, the SDLP vote in West Belfast plummeted from 11,087 to 4,110 while the PSF vote stayed relatively stable in absolute terms, only rising from 22,355 to 23,631. But when you consider that in this period PSF went from 53% to 70% in that constituency, and the SDLP declined from 26% to 12%, you have to factor in whose supporters are turning out and whose aren’t. To be brutal, you wouldn’t bother voting for Alex Attwood unless you’re a political masochist, and if you’re a real political masochist you may as well vote for John Lowry.
So there is a gap in the market, but it isn’t obvious who’s going to fill that gap. Honestly, it may as well be Fianna Fáil. In this context, ideology is not nearly as important as class, and having a leader who’ll play well with the professional classes. Actually, I’ve never believed that ideology really played much of a role in the SDLP anyway, despite the much-touted divisions between the party’s nationalist and social democratic wings. Denis Haughey was Hume’s aide in Strasbourg and a great advocate of post-nationalist European social democracy, but his 1992 election campaign in Mid-Ulster was still one of the most nakedly sectarian campaigns I’ve ever seen. John Hume Thought is not irrelevant, especially when it comes to SDLP members’ self-image, but it’s never been an ideological party.
And this is what’s going to come into play when the party chooses its new leader. (We may note that Durko’s announcement included his intention to step down from the Assembly so as to end double jobbing. This might spike the guns of the multi-jobbing deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell, who manages to combine Westminster, Stormont and his medical practice.) You’re getting names touted about like John Dallat or Margaret Ritchie or Allbran Maginness, all of whom are able enough people, but you’d be sorely pressed to find any serious political issues at stake, either on a higher ideological level or in terms of the peace process. No, what’s going to come into play is whether anyone has any ideas about burnishing the tired SDLP brand and making it appealing again.
And if all else fails, Mark Durkan might figure that, Derry people’s legendary unwillingness to leave their city notwithstanding, he could do something on a broader stage. You never know, there may be a vacancy for the Fianna Fáil leadership…
More on this from 1967.