In his News Letter column Alex Kane emphasises the importance of the SDLP leadership contest to prospects of a constructive, workable Northern Ireland Assembly. In stark terms, if the moderate nationalist party cannot recover and challenge Sinn Féin’s ascendancy, then devolved government will continue along current lines, perpetuating a community tug of war which results in stasis.
Although Kane is right to identify the Shinners as the principal obstacle to partnership, I do not accept his contention that it scarcely matters which party leads unionism. The DUP has contributed substantially to the current dysfunction at Stormont and it acts as a brake on progress. It might not share Sinn Féin’s paramilitary past, but it is also a party of carve-up, rather than partnership.
Fault does not exclusively lie with parties on one particular side of the constitutional question. If Northern Ireland is to enjoy effective, efficient regional government and some degree of community cohesion, it must experience a revival of moderate politics on either side of the divide. To this end the UUP is attempting to revitalise its fortunes through a linkup with the Conservative party. The SDLP hopes that a change in leader might make a similar resurgence possible.
Liam Clarke provided a comprehensive analysis of the impending contest in the Sunday Times. He is right to claim that neither of the two contenders, Alasdair McDonnell (current deputy leader) or Margaret Ritchie (social development minister), are likely to create an immediate sense of excitement about the party’s prospects. But the very act of having a contest will generate interest and debate. And neither McDonnell nor Ritchie are on the ‘green’ wing of the party.
Tory Story worries that the SDLP could attempt to pick needless fights with unionists in order to compete with Sinn Féin. Had Declan O’Loan or a similar figure announced an intention to fight a leadership battle, I might have shared his concerns. With two more moderate figures contesting the post, I believe a more cooperative approach will be favoured.
Margaret Ritchie has enjoyed a constructive relationship with senior Ulster Unionists, including Sir Reg Empey, and on occasions she has encouraged the two parties to coordinate their efforts on issues of mutual interest. McDonnell isn’t generally associated with a posturing style of politics either, although some of his recent statements on a proposed Bill of Rights might engender some concern.
Whoever eventually emerges as the SDLP’s leader will face many of the same problems that Empey faces as Ulster Unionist leader. There will doubtless be similar internal debates as to the best strategies to win back voters. For the best interests of Northern Ireland it is important that the parties can cooperate around areas of mutual interest and emphasise the extent to which communal carve-up is not working.