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13 May 2010 Edition

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SDLP will pay price for insulting electorate

Alasdair McDonnell at the count in South Belfast

Alasdair McDonnell at the count in South Belfast

The media in the North has largely portrayed the SDLP’s results in the 6 May Westminster election as a victory for the party - or a halt of its decline - and an endorsement of its new leader Margaret Ritchie.
The SDLP retained its three Westminster seats in Foyle (Mark Durkan), South Belfast (Alasdair McDonnell) and South Down (Ritchie) - helped by republican voters in South Belfast and by Ulster Unionist tactical voters in South Down.
But despite the retention of these three seats, the SDLP has done itself serious damage through its actions during this election campaign, which will have implications lasting into the Assembly elections next year, and beyond.
 
Mistake
Surely some among the SDLP leadership must privately admit that they seriously misjudged the mood among broader nationalism for a strategic cooperation in order to maximise nationalist representation in the face of an attempt by the Orange Order to unseat a republican from Fermanagh/South Tyrone by orchestrating a united unionist candidate.
Sinn Féin correctly judged this mood and took an initiative in the interests of broader nationalism and in defence of the two nationalist seats under threat from unionism, Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast.
Commentators have described Alasdair McDonnell’s acceptance speech when he won the South Belfast seat as “ungracious”. That’s putting it very mildly. It was smug, self-righteous and deeply insulting to the thousands of republicans who voted for him in order to return a nationalist MP, following Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey’s decision on 20 April to step aside.
On UTV the day after the election McDonnell described the nine per cent swing from Sinn Féin to the SDLP in South Belfast since the 2005 Westminster election as “easy statistics - too easy to be true”. The SDLP was keen to point out that its majority in the constituency this time was 5,926, while Maskey’s vote in 2005 was 2,662. But in the 2007 Assembly elections, Maskey’s vote rose to 3,996, or 13.2 per cent, and this is likely to have risen further on 6 May if he had not withdrawn his candidacy.
The point is that Sinn Féin’s action irrefutably helped defend the seat from being taken by the DUP. Despite their reservations, thousands of Sinn Féin supporters voted for McDonnell in response to Maskey’s action and call for maximum nationalist representation, and the SDLP refuses to even acknowledge this fact. According to McDonnell, the SDLP won votes from “every corner” of South Belfast but Sinn Féin voters “stayed at home” like Maskey secretly told them to.
The proof that the SDLP had made a mistake in rejecting Sinn Féin’s overtures for nationalist cooperation to defend the threatened seats could immediately be seen in the positive response among nationalists to Maskey’s stepping aside in South Belfast.
Most importantly, it can now be seen, and quantified, in the re-election of Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh/South Tyrone - and the halving of the SDLP’s vote in that constituency.

Nationalism Vs sectarianism
Ritchie described Sinn Féin’s initiative in South Belfast as a “sectarian gimmick” designed “to do two things - sectarianise the election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and ensure that Alasdair McDonnell loses his seat”.
Leaving aside the bizarre conspiracy theory, the SDLP’s insistence throughout the election campaign that for nationalists to cooperate is “sectarian” showed that the party’s politics, characterised by ideological confusion for years, have reached a new low.
For a supposedly nationalist party to be unable or unwilling to comprehend the basic concept of nationalism is a pretty serious failure. To claim that aiming to maximise nationalist representation is “sectarian” is inaccurate and absurd and suggests that the SDLP believes nationalism is a sectarian ideology.
Nationalists in the North want to ensure they get the full representation they are entitled; it’s about democracy.
The attempt by the combined forces of political unionism, from the Orange Order to the English Tories, the DUP, UUP and TUV, to unseat a republican MP from her seat in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, a predominantly nationalist electorate, was a sectarian tactic aimed at disenfranchising nationalists and blocking progressive change towards achieving equality.
For the SDLP to have cooperated with Sinn Féin, a party committed to equality and democratic rights for all, would be anti-sectarian.
Other small parties and the media also claimed that republicans were fighting the election campaign from “sectarian trenches” and that the campaign failed to address “real issues”.
But the partition of Ireland, with the denial of rights and all the distortions it brings with it, IS a real issue and a defining one in many people’s minds.
As well as its commitment to ending British rule in Ireland, Sinn Féin outlined its vision for equality and democratic rights for all, and for the defence of jobs and public services. Republicans convinced a small but important section of working-class unionists that Sinn Féin was the party committed to advancing the equality agenda for all.

Resisting cuts
The SDLP also repeatedly claimed that it could more effectively represent the interests of the people of the North, in particular, resisting cuts to public services, by taking its seats in the British parliament.
To suggest that an elected representative in the Six Counties can not do anything for their constituents if they do not take their Westminster seat is to ignore the progress that has been made over recent decades, led by Sinn Féin, of empowering local communities and establishing acceptable institutions that can effectively address people’s needs.
It is also to ignore the fact that the majority of people on this island are opposed to Irish affairs being decided in London. Sinn Féin stands in the Westminster elections to provide an alternative to those who accept British rule in this country as legitimate. And the party has a strong and growing mandate to do so.
The truth is that the North of Ireland is viewed as totally peripheral in Westminster and the parties who occasionally show up to vote have very limited power and influence.
It is clear that the elected representatives from the North can most effectively resist Tory/Liberal Democrat cuts to public services and the block grant by developing a united position of opposition within the Executive, and demanding that economic and fiscal powers be devolved from London to Belfast. Sinn Féin has now put forward a call for a united front among all parties and sections of society here in opposition to the cutbacks, and outlined practical proposals on how such a united position can be reached.

The SDLP has done itself serious damage through its actions during this election campaign 

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