An opinion piece I read today by Suzanne Breen caught by eye, since it chimed with my initial reflections after the conclusion of the local elections in Northern Ireland.
@PJM2010 @mickfealty If I were Doc Al I'd be on the phone to Mícheal Martin this afternoon. #SDLP
— Chris Connolly (@Cripipper) May 26, 2014
Breen's argument is that Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland is 'lacking a Jim Allister". This is partially true, but glides over the unfortunate reality that someone who is to Sinn Féin as Allister is to the DUP would be big on the armalite and low on the ballot box. However, the headline was almost certainly written by a sub and would not have been the one Breen wrote for herself.
What Breen means though is that Irish nationalism needs someone to hold Sinn Féin to account, and she is right that the SDLP is not doing that. This presumably stems from the same lack of spine that led their councillors to support Sinn Féin's decision in Newry & Mourne to name a municipal children's playground after IRA hunger striker and Kingsmill massacre suspect Raymond McCreash. SDLP are scared of appearing "soft" on the national question out of fear of losing votes to Sinn Féin or giving succour to unionism.
This analysis, however, completely misunderstands the SDLP's predicament. They are always going to appear "soft on the national question by comparison. What sustains the SDLP is entrenched but waning localised support in Northern Ireland's northwestern and southeastern extremities, and a core of older middle-class voters who would rather vote Conservative than Sinn Féin but have nowhere else to go in Northern Ireland's tribalised politics.
There are only two avenues available to the SDLP that could prevent them slipping below the 10% support level, back above which they will never return: leave the Executive and operate as an opposition within Stormont, or enter negotiations, this year, to merge with Fianna Fáil. There will never be a better moment for the SDLP to get the best possible deal out of such a merger: Fianna Fáil did moderately well in the local elections in the South (how times have changed: they did as well/badly as they did in 2009, which was considered disastrous for the party then) and are keen to show they are on the up and up. Becoming an all-Ireland party would give Fianna Fáil a boost in the battle for the green vote in the South, and would hopefully give the SDLP a bit of bottle in holding Sinn Féin's feet to the fire for their performance in government, something that democracy in Northern Ireland desperately needs. It would also open the door to the British Labour Party and/or Fine Gael to organise in Northern Ireland, giving more electoral choices to all voters in Northern Ireland.
So, as I said in my tweet, my tuppence worth of advice to SDLP leader Dr. Alistair McDonnell is to get on the phone to Micheal Martin and have the merger in place in advance of next year's UK general election. I'm no fan of Micheal Martin, but the fact that he would be an asset for the SDLP shows how desperate things have become for the party.
The time for such a move is now; delay and the opportunity will be lost.