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Independent support will finish SDLP

(Brian Feeney, Irish News)

The SDLP is "considering standing aside" in west Tyrone to give the so-called hospital candidate a free run. We have it from Mark Durkan. What a gaffe. It doesn't matter now how long the 'consideration' lasts because the very fact of that consideration means the SDLP has given up the ghost in west Tyrone. They've admitted they can't win the Westminster seat and they're not even going to try.

Even worse, the reasons being offered for 'standing aside' are completely dishonest and will damage anyone else the SDLP finds to stand as a candidate west of the Bann never mind west Tyrone.

If the SDLP leader thinks it's so important to have an acute hospital in Omagh that he might support an independent candidate, then what does that say to SDLP supporters in Fermanagh? Why should they support an SDLP candidate when the party clearly believes Enniskillen shouldn't have a hospital and attaches so much importance to that belief they will 'stand aside' in West Tyrone? Maybe the word 'clearly' should be scrubbed from that sentence?

What does it say to SDLP supporters in Mid-Ulster about the need for a hospital in Dungannon? By the way, it being Easter time when religious people think of the Paschal lamb, who is the SDLP candidate in Mid-Ulster?

The true motive behind Durkan's 'consideration' is of course nothing whatever to do with a hospital at Omagh. The motive is to avoid the humiliation of the SDLP in the constituency. There's a load of rubbish talked about the 'hospital candidate' topping the poll in November 2003. The phrase is meaningless in a PR election.

The hospital man got 6,158 votes or 14.8%. The total for the three Sinn Féin candidates was 16,111 votes or 38.6%, two and a half times the Independent's figure. Now here's the telling figure. The total SDLP vote was 6,110 or 14.6%. The SDLP's vote had collapsed from 13,942 in May 2001. The cause of that collapse was the 6,000 odd voters who switched to the hospital candidate and destroyed the SDLP's Omagh-based candidate.

The truth is the SDLP are thinking of standing aside not because they can't beat Pat Doherty, which is self-evidently true as Durkan has publicly conceded, but because they're terrified they can't even beat the hospital candidate.

The SDLP are considering abasing themselves before the man who wrecked their man in Omagh.

All of which exposes the desperate plight of the SDLP, now bereft of any distinctive policy or electoral strategy. Think about it.

Last time you had the hapless Mark Durkan carrying a lollipop board which said 'Stop the DUP'.

Like SDLP voters had some influence on DUP voters?

This time his lollipop board looks like it's going to say 'Stop Sinn Féin' because he claims, on no evidence at all, that people are fed up with abstentionist MPs.

No, he doesn't mean SDLP ones.

So, since his party can't beat any Shinners he prefers to consider supporting someone who might not beat one but at least with the help of unionists could stop one being elected. That's a policy?

On the wider scene, 'standing aside' automatically means the SDLP vote total falls as does its share of the vote across the north. Furthermore the damage will be permanent. The SDLP will never get those votes back. The party's finished in west Tyrone. If the SDLP do manage to find a sacrificial candidate in west Tyrone, and time is running out because Blair is going to dissolve parliament on April 7, it will be too late to repair the damage.

Finally, to contemplate supporting an independent defies the very basis on which the SDLP was established, which was to create a single, strong, coherent northern political party to replace the raggle-taggle of nationalist oddities who had achieved nothing after 50 years of partition.

The one lesson of all those years was that independents achieve nothing. Remember, out of 40,000 votes in west Tyrone the independent polled 6,158 and what?

Besides, a general election is not about a hospital in Omagh. It's about how to implement the Good Friday Agreement and that's a matter for political parties, the units around which the Agreement is constructed.

March 31, 2005

This article appeared first in the March 30, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News