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Margaret Richie of the SDLP has helpfully avoided telling people how they should vote by…er… telling them who they should not vote for. December 29, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin.
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I’d hoped to stay offline for most of this week but who is this unlikely figure dragging me back to the keyboard?

Why it’s Margaret Richie, of the SDLP, who has decided to offer her advice to voters south of the Border on who they should vote for at the next RoI General Election… or more precisely who they shouldn’t vote for.

Because Richie has decided that she should say the following:

We in the SDLP want good relations with the three main parties, and we would not be telling anybody how they should vote in this particular election
But what I would say to them is they will not gain any further comfort, or they will not gain any further, shall we say, legs up the ladder, if they are going to be voting for sectarian politics and the politics of division through Sinn Fein.

Let’s put aside the genuinely odd ‘further comfort… legs up the ladder’ formulation – what is she getting at, let’s try to ignore the fact she has decided to not to tell anyone how to vote by telling people how to vote (I know, I know, it’s in the title of this post), and let’s try to work through some of the issues more generally.

First visit the SDLP website to see that their vision is “a reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous new Ireland.”

Now there’s no getting away from the fact that a united ‘new Ireland’ however one cuts it is an Ireland that has an appeal to just one community. That may change with time, or it may not. But…

Given that then the SDLP is not qualitatively different to SF in terms of how it seeks to build political support (obviously the history of the two parties is distinctly different, but if that is the terrain that is being fought on then surely that should be made explicit). Now I don’t expect SF to pick up votes on the Shankill Road in any quantity at all. But nor, in truth, do I expect the SDLP to either. And I think there’s a fair bit of dishonesty about the realities of different communities in a lot of the rhetoric surrounding this. In other words both political parties appeal to a single community, at least in the main. That in and of itself is the politics of ‘division’, at least to some extent. There’s no getting away from that, this appears to be a structural reality of the north in the short to medium term. And while the divisions can be starker, or less stark, they remain extant.

What party genuinely pulls any significant cross community vote? Why probably Alliance (and let’s note that the nature of that vote tends to be mainly middle class). And…er… that’s it. Given that Alliance’s vote historically has been tiny in contrast with the bigger battalions, this notion of some form of purity on this issue has always seemed to be more aspirational than realistic.

And the SDLP is a functional element in that mix, as indeed is every other party, whether unionist or nationalist/Republican to a greater or lesser extent.

But it’s not as if the SDLP couldn’t do something about it were it so pushed. The party could withdraw from the Executive which some argue perpetuates the division. It could refashion its program completely to jettison the united Ireland bit. It could stop being a nationalist party, stop forwarding policies which appeal to nationalists. But it does not do so.

Why not? Because it knows, as do all parties that seek a measure of political power, that there is almost no constituency beyond the divisions at this point in time. That any party that explicitly seeks to operate there will gain that 3-5% of the vote that Alliance and the much much smaller parties have traditionally seen go their way but little more. And that this isn’t going to change any time soon. And to ask them to take the risk that by taking a risk that will in itself have an exemplary effect is to ask them to be something that they and almost all other political formations are not. That may be a pity or it may not be, but there are enough members of the SDLP who remember how the tide went out almost overnight for the old Nationalist Party and how they took over the reins. They may well be counting their lucky stars that the damage SF has inflicted on their vote has been much more limited than that, that they continue to exist, even in small ways prosper given the more baroque predictions as to their future.

There’s another problem for the SDLP. I’ve often put forth the idea, half-tongue in cheek, that SF seems somewhat like the CSU in Bavaria, a regional party with links to a larger formation, the CDU. Of course the SF comparison breaks down completely in that SF has no larger party to link up to. But the regional aspect isn’t entirely incorrect when we look at the pattern of support. In all-island contexts it is clear that SF’s support is pooled towards the north-east. Not entirely, and not completely, but a clear dynamic.

On the other hand one could argue that that idea much more neatly fits the SDLP albeit its links, nebulous though they might be, extend to…well… ‘all three main parties’.

And here a cruel paradox emerges, because truth is that the SDLP is not a national formation in the way that SF is by dint of organising both North and South and that the ‘main’ parties are by dint of organising within a specific state polity. The SDLP, and again let me stress that there are those within it who I would find admirable, is a party which exists within the constraints of Northern Ireland, for better and for worse. That this is also true of the DUP is interesting, but the dynamic there strikes me as strikingly different. To seek to contain a situation, while obviously difficult over the past thirty or forty years, is quite distinct from arguing for change, however moderate and however moderately.

Indeed consequent on that thought one could enquire as to what is the SDLP’s vision of its ultimate future should a united Ireland come into being, or alternatively should that destination be delayed indefinitely? Would it see its work as fulfilled in the first case and disappear into larger all island formations, and what of the second case?

But there’s a broader point. Parts of the Irish commentariat and the UK media have long bemoaned the fact that Sinn Féin and the DUP both ‘succeeded’ whereas the SDLP and the UUP were marginalized by the peace process. Well yes (although again the functional aspects of the way in which both SF and the DUP came to the fore is different, though again interesting to reflect upon, even if it allowed both a measure of political dominance). But how could it be otherwise when the core goal of both was one centered in concepts of ‘national’ identity and the expression of same both politically and in other regards? A party pushing for all-island unity that had an all-island identity was potentially going to have a greater degree of success – at this point in time, for all can change – than one which was essentially regional with no direct linkage to cross-border formations (and arguably a DUP that had set its face against all change and established itself as the literal living manifestation of guaranteeing the Union was always going to be the only formation that could give political expression to a compromise with Republicanism/Nationalism).

How could the SDLP, or indeed the UUP (whose history was hardly stellar in terms of safeguarding the Union) possibly compete?

But even assuming, as noted mordantly by Mark McGregor on Slugger, that anyone pays a blind bit of notice in the South to her suggestion (he says: I’d hazard a guess the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie impact on the southern electorate’s consciousness is somewhere just above that of Tom Elliott and a fair way below Peter Robinson’s), there’s yet another problem.

Her intervention, while arguably unwise, also has three further fundamental problems. Firstly by making the point she herself reifies the national issue over all others. There’s not a word about what Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or indeed the Labour party stand for. They become a lumpen political mass whose distinctiveness is intrinsic only in that which they are not, Sinn Féin. That’s all very well, but it speaks of a curious detachment from matters Republic of Ireland when there’s not an ounce of nuance about what’s actually happening within the polity above and beyond the ‘national issue’. Indeed for her to couch all this in such terms suggests that for all the talk of SF’s divisiveness she herself cannot transcend that issue itself and it is the only prism through which she views these matters. I’m sure that’s not the case, but that this statement can appear that way is the problem.

There’s an obvious corollary to that which is that she also curiously unaware of how such lack of nuance might play. Few enough will vote Sinn Féin with much thought as to matters north of the border in precise terms, though that will be a factor for some. Their current rise in support would appear to be as much a function of their response to the economic crisis, the failure of Fianna Fáil and the fracturing of that vote, and the success of Pearse Doherty as it is to the events of the last forty years. And given the status that Fianna Fáil has attained recently in the public mind as the destroyer of worlds, well, okay, the destroyer of the RoI economy, the Irish electorate is not unreasonably exercised more on that which is happening at its doorstep and those who have brought it to this sorry state. Vote for anyone but Sinn Féin, even FF, when the electorate is sharpening its – er – electoral knives to despatch that latter party, seems a strangely unreflective statement.

Secondly she completely ignores the political positioning of Sinn Féin in the Republic. Now, one can certainly take the Ruairi Quinn line articulated so eloquently last week on the radio, where he suggested – and I paraphrase somewhat less eloquently – that Sinn Féin was not a left-wing party, but instead radical nationalist or somesuch. Well, perhaps, but as was pointed out to me, given that the Labour Party of which one R.Quinn is a member has accepted the political and economic orthodoxy of the IMF etc, and Sinn Féin has long argued against that orthodoxy and produced a rationale for their arguments the jibes about where SF sits on the political spectrum seems to be a bit moot. Most observers, though, would assign it a position to the left of the Labour Party. How far left is a different issue entirely.

Thirdly, and perhaps less importantly, but it links to a point made earlier, her party sits in government with Sinn Féin. Her party does so by choice. Unless I’m mistaken, and I could well be, the SDLP abstained on the DUP/SF proposals for the draft NI Budget. Given those salient facts, doesn’t it seem as if there’s something entirely artificial about all this?

And perhaps unfortunately for her, Sinn Féin can respond, as they did last evening from – ah, wouldn’t you know - Dublin [ouch!] Sinn Féin in the following terms…

“Margaret Ritchie says she doesn’t want to interfere in the election south of the border but goes on to urge people not to vote for Sinn Féin.
 
“So the SDLP thinks it’s okay to vote for Fianna Fáil?
 
“This is more sour grapes from Margaret Ritchie, whose party has been eclipsed by Sinn Féin.
 
“If the SDLP wants to stand against Sinn Féin in the Dáil elections then they’re more than welcome to try in Dublin West or anywhere else south of the border.
 
“Come on down, Margaret.”

They have a point.

Not least because it seems curious that Richie would seek to persuade (impress? implore?) RoI voters about the bona fides of a party that they have an immediate knowledge of when she herself comes from a party that the vast majority of voters have little or none. That in truth most voters in the South have already made up their minds about SF, and those whose minds are changing are unlikely to be doing so on the spur of a moment. That SF will in reality, whatever the polls say, be glad to get the 7 TDs necessary to get speaking time. And that few enough will listen to what she has to say and that in saying it she has – perhaps – given her opponents in SF closer to home a handy little soundbite to play and replay over the next while.

So all in all not a great idea. Interesting to know though if it was made at the suggestion of others, however indirect.

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1. Jenny - December 29, 2010

Excellent post that should be read by all who are considering the future of the SDLP both inside and outside the party. For the upcoming elections in the south, the most logical approach for the SDLP would be to support Labour, and it says much for the obviously continuing Fianna Fail influence that Ritchie didn’t say that. As you say, it shows the problems of putting nationalist ideology above all else, which at a time of economic crisis is clearly bonkers.

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WorldbyStorm - December 29, 2010

Appreciate that Jenny. And by the way Happy New Year.

The other interesting thing is that they’re boxed in by their own actions. They have real achievements, in a way the peace process is their greatest legacy above and beyond generating real pressure on Dublin and Washington to take at least some notice of the situation. And yet they can’t run on that, or rather they seem unable to come to terms with the outworkings of the process. That’s understandable. The politically much more marginal SF of the 1980s is now what it is. But a bit like the UUP’s relationship with the DUP they’ve been casting around here and there.

And I entirely agree re the logical thing would be LP support. But they can’t, even now, do that. They simply can’t read the southern electorate (and of course they lack the feet on the ground in the south in the way SF has). Tjey can’t avoid the nod to FF, can’t come out as a genuinely social democratic formation.

And yet the other aspect is they’re not going away.

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2. Justin Moran - December 29, 2010

Great post, but I wonder if there’s another element to it the SDLP’s behaviour, one maybe particular to Ritchie.

A portion of the unionist electorate in parts of the Six vote SDLP in Westminster elections, or might be willing to transfer to SDLP in Assembly or local elections.

The SDLP likes to present this as their ability to reach across the sectarian divide. I’ve always viewed it as curious myself. Unionists aren’t voting SDLP because they’ve been persuaded of the merits of ending partition, but because they view Sinn Féin as a far more serious threat to the union. Rightly or wrongly.

Ritchie has an 8,000 vote majority in South Down, but it’s estimated to be less than 3,000 if she loses unionist votes. McDonnell polls some unionist votes in South Belfast and Durkan picks some up in Foyle.

In the coming Assembly elections the SDLP are going to be scrambling for votes. In places like North Antrim (seat in a largely unionist constituency in danger), East Antrim (fighting SF for a possible first nationalist seat), Fermanagh-South Tyrone (seat in danger from SF), a couple of hundred unionist transfers could make a big difference in a head to head with Sinn Féin for the last seat.

Also, by endorsing all southern parties Ritchie is going some way to repairing damage internal to the SDLP. She gave Labour a huge endorsement at their last annual conference, and was quite disparaging of FF. A substantial portion of her party would lean more to FF (some even to FG), or at least would argue that the SDLP needs to maintain good relations with all the southern establishment parties, not just Labour.

I wonder if this statement from her serves those purposes as well as the ones outlined in your post.

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WorldbyStorm - December 29, 2010

That last point makes a lot of sense. Whether it does her any good is an interesting question. I guess internal to the SDLP probably not a problem. And you’re right too, no harm for them to project themselves as distinctly different to SF, though as you say, it’s not a real difference in purely functional terms.

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3. Blissett - December 29, 2010

Two points you raise wbs which are worth noting. Firstly I think that while ‘and yet the other aspect is they’re not going away’ is true, a solid proportion the vote they get largely represents those who simply will not vote SF, come hell or high water, and vote sdlp on that basis more than out of any great meas for the SDLP. Many of these are older voters who remember the armed conflict, etc. While that generation won’t be around forever, it means that for the time being the SF support definitely has a ceiling, and they may not be all that far off it.

Very interested to read the following comment ‘Interesting to know though if it was made at the suggestion of others, however indirect.’
I am increasingly beginning to think that Ritchie is not a great deal more than a proxy for the ambitious Mr mcDevitt, the language and the politics are very similar to what I would consider to be his. I may be being unkind to Ritchie, but he strikes me as being the brains behind the operation, as it were.

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WorldbyStorm - December 29, 2010

The SF ceiling in the North has interested me for quite a while, albeit its a different discussion. And on a different tangent again I’ve always regarded SF as in some sense being not dissimilar to say Republican Left parties, say on the lines of the Catalan party, or suchlike. How SF can manage to bring along a variegated class vote in the North is very interesting indeed, or can it be done at all?

I take your point in your second paragraph. It does feel as if its part of something larger, SF gets excellent polling numbers in the South, up this pops (and arguably most to the benefit of FF since it seems to me that some of the newfound SF support is drawn from FF – even if some of those are people who tilted to the LP over the last year or two). Of course it could be pure coincidence. But…

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4. Jim Monaghan - December 29, 2010

The main motive for the SDLP would be to maintain good relations with possible government formations inn the South.I couild see the LP doing something similar if asked.
I would have thought that there would be an electorate advantage in a pan nationalist voting pact which would be at least as good in getting seats as the few unionists who would vote for anyone but SF.
Anyway as far as I can see it will make no difference. Cannot remember McCann jibe about middle of the road, except to say danger of getting hit by speeding cars.Mind you with Adams, Gilmore, Kenny, all competing in the race for blandest and most cautious political leader, Ritchie is certainly in the running.
The biggest anyone but, party, is FF. I see the most bizzare combinations of preferences as voters go down the list to keep their vote alive against FF.

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WorldbyStorm - December 29, 2010

That’s going to be a really important dynamic. Being able to compare and contrast the preferences with 2007 should give no end of sport to us…

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sonofstan - December 29, 2010

Rather sadly, I find myself looking forward to the election, not as the occasion of political transformation, but as hugely interesting in terms of, well, entertainment for election junkies.

That said, the next Dáil ought to be the most changed in terms of personnel since at least 1977, and probably ever. Certainly a quarter, and maybe as much as a third of deputies returned are likely to be new. And the age profile is likely to go down a fair bit (although the new SF TD for Louth will bump it up a bit)- and FF will probably replace Labour as the ‘senior’ party.

Whether any of this will make any difference to anything much is another matter…..

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WorldbyStorm - December 29, 2010

I know exactly how you feel. On all those counts. It would be great to think that perhaps this change will make a difference, but…

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Crocodile - December 29, 2010

On the road up to Leopardstown Racecourse today, Paddy Power, who sponsored the day, had erected mock election posters with prices for their ‘next Taoiseach’ market. 1/10 Kenny: now there’s a reason to be cheerful.

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WorldbyStorm - December 30, 2010

;)

Cool image by the way Crocodile.

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