26 September 2002 Edition

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Bríd bows out

Bríd Rogers, who this week announced her decision not to stand in next year's Assembly elections, characterises the almost pathological determination of the SDLP to underestimate the electorate, argues FERN LANE.

Bríd Rogers announced last week that she will not stand in next year's Assembly elections, citing family reasons for her decision. Together with John Hume and Seamus Mallon, Rogers formed the SDLP triumvirate that, in recent times, just about saved the party from oblivion.

With her departure, the last of the three, and the lack of anyone within the party with the kind of profile and media approval enjoyed by them, it seems very likely that Sinn Fein will increase its share of the nationalist vote sufficiently in the elections to overtake the SDLP in the Assembly.

Like John Hume, she embodied the party's retreat into middle-aged, middle-class safety and its almost complete withdrawal from the day-to-day lives of working-class people, particularly in places such as north and east Belfast.

After a number of outings to Garvaghy Road where, on one occasion, she was memorably outraged after being manhandled by RUC officers in riot gear, she all but disappeared from view. The same is true of the SDLP as a whole; during the summer months and the worst of the UDA campaign against vulnerable nationalist communities, for example, the party was rarely to be seen or heard, both on the ground and in the media. Or at least it was rarely to be heard speaking out against sectarianism, beyond the usual platitudes; instead the SDLP chose to complain incessantly about the IRA.

Within the strictly political sphere, the SDLP's role seems to have been reduced to carping about Sinn Fein from within the confines of Stormont, rather than challenging the UUP or the British government about their manifold failures in implementing the Good Friday Agreement. The party's stance on policing, berating Sinn Féin for its refusal to sign up to less than was promised, rather than challenging John Reid and his colleagues on their government's reneging on Pattern, may well have cost it more votes than almost any other issue, particularly from those who have daily experience of the way in which the RUC/PSNI goes about its work.

But perhaps her and her party's greatest mistake was the catastrophic miscalculation over West Tyrone during the last election.

Assuming that self-styled towering moral authority was enough (another of the party's bad habits, learned from John Hume), the SDLP parachuted her, as the Assembly member for Upper Bann, into the constituency at the very last moment. Given that Sinn Fein had consistently out-polled the SDLP in the constituency, to the tune of something like 4000 votes, there seemed little doubt that she was sent in purely as a spoiling candidate. Rogers was punished for the SDLP's arrogance by being beaten into third place, a thoroughly deserved humiliation from which neither she nor the party has yet really recovered.

Rogers - although undoubtedly she did have her moments, such as during the foot and mouth crisis - characterises this almost pathological determination by the SDLP to underestimate the electorate. The party leadership continues to flounder on in a state of denial about its electoral decline, insisting that voters are either duped into voting for Sinn Féin because they are brainwashed or bullied, or that they do so because Sinn Féin is really the SDLP is disguise. Even former member Brian Feeney, in his recently published history of Sinn Féin, advocates this view, declaring that Sinn Féin "shamelessly" presents SDLP policies as its own, although he neglects to say precisely which ones these might be. But what the hell; after all, we have to allow the 'Stoops' their little bit of dignity.

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