Posted By: June 07, 2014

Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday,June 7, 2014

DEAR SDLP, How are you all doing? (We could guess, but we thought it would be more
polite to ask.) You have received some negative post-election comment recently, so
the last thing you need right now is more criticism. For that reason we thought it
would be more helpful to try to imagine the sort of analysis and advice which a
consultant might offer you, by examining your corporate processes and product in the
light of your recent election performance. (To make it a proper consultancy report
you will have to add jargon, fancy diagrams and phrases like "helicopter vision".
For your comfort and safety we will write it in fluent capitalism.)

Your core business is selling constitutional nationalism. Sinn Féin destroyed your
previous market monopoly by re-inventing nationalism as New Nationalism, a
Republican-lite energy drink, with a taste of the second coming of Catholic
emancipation. You are now selling their brand. The harder you work, the more they

In addition, they are politically smarter, financially richer and significantly
better organised than you and, by claiming the high moral ground of peace, they make
the rules of the market place. You are competing on their terms.

In response you can adapt or die. (Political death just means becoming irrelevant -
you are nearly there.) You can adapt by selecting one or more (preferably all) of
three actions: re-capture the nationalist space vacated by Sinn Féin; outflank all
other parties by moving to the left and/or leave the executive.

New Nationalism, which is essentially Catholic, reflects Daniel O'Connell's days of
toasting the Queen. It claims that Ireland has two nations based on religious
division. (Peter Robinson apparently tried to create a third, but failed.) Copy the
Ulster Unionists' return to basic Unionism and reclaim traditional Nationalism. (It
is not difficult to argue against toasting a millionaire, hereditary monarch while
45 per cent of west Belfast children are in poverty.)

Define nationalism, not in terms of the Catholic O'Connell, but the Protestant
Parnell, whose involvement in Westminster and the Land League reflected a more
inclusive and more socially aware movement. By broadening nationalism beyond
Catholicism, you can seek votes in the middle ground, which Sinn Féin has
conveniently abandoned.

A second choice is to move to the left (oh, go on - just a bit) and expose all other
parties on our shameful litany of social and economic problems: unemployment,
emigration, the lack of social housing. Move from equality issues surrounding
sectarianism to non-sectarian social and economic inequality. You could argue, for
example, that if we obtain powers over corporation tax, we should reduce it only
marginally and use the revenue to tackle child poverty.

This would allow you to do to Sinn Féin in the North what they have done to the
Labour Party in the South. In fairness to Sinn Féin, their opposition to welfare
cuts here has closed off some possible opportunities.

In addition, they have the advantage of being in opposition in the south, while you
have the disadvantage of being their coalition partner in the north.

Which brings us to the third point: leave the executive and enter opposition.

With respect, Jim Allister has been more effective, and increasingly popular in
unofficial opposition than your 14 progovernment MLAs.

You are carrying the can for an exceptionally dysfunctional government, when you
could be organising a political movement to oppose its sectarianism and its failures
in almost every sphere of life. Your vote is still in decline even though Sinn
Féin's has peaked.

They lost votes to Republicans, independents and the left - three areas of potential
growth for you.

If you choose to adopt any of these proposals (and even if you do not) you will
urgently require a key skill which you currently lack: communication. Sinn Féin are
not just good at it, they are world class. They simplify a message, convey it and
repeat it until everyone gets it. They even own the world rights on words like
'leadership'. Listen to them and try to learn.

So what will you do: adapt or die? Adapting requires creativity, imagination and
other qualities, which you tend not to display - and it carries significant risks.

Dying is easier. It requires no skill and carries no new risk and as you draw
yourselves up for a last political breath (do you feel a ballad coming on?) you can
argue that you are dying because you heroically refused to budge from the position
of New Nationalism. In that way, you can then claim to be the only political party
which ever died for Ireland.