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SDLP cannot out-green Sinn Féin

(Malachi O'Doherty, News Letter)

A friend of mine buttonholed a Sinn Féin canvasser and asked him what Sinn Féin could do for him that the other parties could not. The canvasser said that his party would work to bring about a United Ireland. That sealed it as far as my friend was concerned; he would not be voting for Sinn Féin. One thing he doesn't want is to be governed from Dublin, and that's because he grew up there and knows what it's like.

He is not a Unionist but he would like the border to stay where it is.

But who is he to vote for? This week, Mark Durkan was denying that the SDLP was trying to out-green Sinn Féin. In the same week, his party repeated its demand that the first referendum on Irish unity should be held in the lifetime of the next assembly.

Well, they can have the referendum but it will not bring Irish unity and therefore the only point in it will be the whip up a fruitless quarrel. If there was the remotest chance that Ireland could be united now, the SDLP's middle-class voters of South Belfast and a Culmore Road would be spluttering their Earl Grey and single malts over their Italian tweeds at the prospect.

A pitch for a United Ireland would be as attractive to them as a Republican scowl: votail Sinn Féin or get your knees done.

It is hard to work out why the SDLP is trying to occupy the same political ground as the shinners. Bobbie Hanvey - no mean wag - says they are now 'the men behind the choir'.

Another joke doing the rounds: why does Sinn Féin not object to MI5 having offices in Hollywood? Answer: because they won't have so far to go to complain if their cheques don't come through.

But if you really want to see Sinn Féin held up to public ridicule, go and see Tim Loane's new play, To Be Sure, at the Lyric Theatre next week.

A family of loony dissidents kidnaps the Sinn Féin leader and dismembers the kneecapper in chief. It's as well for Adams that the polls will be closed before the first audiences come out from the premier on Wednesday night.

The SDLP would learn something from that play about how to attack their chief political rivals.

Erecting a sign pointing to MI5 in Hollywood was a totally pointless exercise. Why pitch for the vote of the kind of nationalist who frets about securocrats? If the SDLP can scare some away from voting for Sinn Féin, they will not persuade them to vote for themselves instead. They will send them off to vote for dissident Republicans or to abstain. That kind of nationalist doesn't trust the SDLP to be tougher in its criticism of the police than Sinn Féin.

You have to concede that killing hundreds of RUC members over the years constitutes a credible record of opposition.

The other mistake the SDLP makes is in constantly attacking the DUP. Do they seriously think that any DUP voter is going to be so enlightened by one of Mark Durkan's aphorisms that he or she will switch to the SDLP? It isn't going to happen. The enemy is Sinn Féin and if Sinn Féin is canvassing on the promise of United Ireland, then the SDLP should confidently swing the other way, trusting that its support base doesn't really want it. At least not now.

The referendum idea is daft. It could rouse sectarian tensions to no good result.

Nationalists, knowing that the vote would fail, might actually vote for it, trusting they would be safe from their secret fear being realised.

But later, as we approached a balance at which a yes vote began to seem plausible, sheepish Nationalists would flee from the idea in huge numbers. That's when they would own up to their ideology being powered by a fantasy. What an achievement it would be for Mark Durkan to get them to admit it now!

Like anyone else with an ounce of sense, nationalists will vote on the practical considerations and there is no practical advantage available to them in being governed from Dublin. Things may change in the future, but in any society that can realistically be envisaged today, Irish unity would increase our taxes and savage our services. So it is fantasy politics to play with the idea at all.

And there is good reason why the SDLP should be starting to appeal more credibly to traditional unionist voters. The old Trimble Mallon executive represented an evenly balanced nationalist Unionist divide, with each community getting five executive seats. It now appears that that was a fluke, and that if the next executive sits, it will represent a Unionist majority. The way forward for the SDLP is to eat into that majority while, at the same time, starting to construct another platform for non sectarian politics. And if they don't, where are they to go, those moderate Unionists who were alienated by Paisley and failed by the Ulster Unionists? They haven't gone away, you know.

But they won't be won over with the prospect of a united Ireland or by a party that is still chasing dreams, and other people's dreams at that.

March 5, 2006

This article appeared in the March 3, 2007 edition of the News Letter.