‘The SDLP’s nationalist, no question about,’ said the party’s South Belfast MP, Claire Hanna, responding to this website’s editor at an ‘Ireland’s Future’ event in the House of Commons last night.
Kevin Rooney asked if it was still accurate to include them in a tally of parties committed to Irish unity. A reasonable question, given the SDLP has seemed disengaged from the issue in recent years.
To be fair, there’s a chunky reference on their website, with party leader, Colum Eastwood saying that it’s his ‘firm view’ that the UK is ‘coming to an end,’ And while this will be viewed as a ‘tragedy’ for many people in Northern Ireland ‘we fully respect that position.’
The party’s vision is to build a ‘shared home’ for everyone, while the emerging debate must be conducted with ‘patience, care and compassion,’ and avoid ‘thoughtless triumphalism.’
Fair enough – and all sensible too – but where is the follow-up? The conferences, seminars, speeches, pamphlets, books, or project lead for Irish unity?
Words but no action, hence Kevin’s question.
The trouble for the SDLP is that it is struggling for that most essential commodity in politics: relevance.
Their response in recent years has been to define themselves against Sinn Fein, which goes as far as taking issue with their rival’s advocacy of a border poll and Irish unity.
Summed-up during the recent election campaign by party leader, Colum Eastwood, accusing Sinn Fein of being in ‘fantasyland’ for their continual advocacy of it.
Fat lot of good it did him.
Yet rather than sulking from the periphery, SDLP has a golden opportunity to leap over the process bit and paint a social democratic vision for a new Ireland.
Claire Hanna briefly touched on the issue last night, talking about shared public services, which is exactly the type of practical theme they need to develop – and own.
How are we going to build a new all-Ireland healthcare system? What sort of welfare state do we need? How do we address deep-seated poverty and a lack of social mobility, that blights inner-city Dublin as much as it does east Belfast?
The SDLP still has loads to contribute, but it needs to stop sulking from the dugout and get on the pitch.