"For some older Northern nationalists, the SDLP’s descent is still demoralising, even shocking. Peace though was made against a backdrop of a Catholic community which had achieved pretty much all to which it aspired. Now, many look at the SDLP and ask what is it for. Many unionists unable to so much as voice the word “power- sharing” may drag their feet for years yet, before fully accepting the idea of equality. Society has changed despite them.
Sinn Féin may be in an awkward position at the minute, ambitions slapped down at least temporarily in the Republic, powerless to overcome DUP stonewalling. Yet electorally in the North, as the SDLP ages and sinks, it has a clear field and is only likely to get stronger rather than weaker.
Meanwhile the SDLP is pushed to choose the hapless Durkan’s successor from a very modest pool of 15 MLAs, among whom there is not a single obvious leader.
It is a sad sight. A party once of political stars and political strength today lacks both."
Coming so soon after the official launch of Margaret Ritchie's campaign for the SDLP leadership, this is a vote of no confidence whatsoever in her – but also in Alasdair McDonnell, her rival. Neither, according to Fionnuala O'Connor, are 'obvious leaders'.
The SDLP faces into a leadership election without the confidence of one of its principal southern cheerleaders – the Irish Times – and then shortly afterwards into an election campaign under the leadership of a weak and 'unobvious' leader, whoever that is.
Sad times indeed for the SDLP. The party needs to wake up and reconnect with the new political realities. It is clearly at serious risk of being an also-ran in Northern politics – a footnote in the history books of the future.
A first step towards rediscovering its relevance would be to decide whether it is a socialist party or a catholic conservative party. In either case it should then proceed to establishing formal links – even a merger – with the relevant party in the south. A socialist SDLP should merge with Labour to form an all-Ireland Labour or Social Democrat party. A catholic conservative party should merge with Fianna Fáil.
In reality, of course, the SDLP is both socialist and catholic conservative in parts. But this combination does not work, so the party may need to be broken up and the two tendencies could then separately join with their southern sister parties. New stronger all-Ireland parties could absorb other smaller parties, groups and individuals supportive of their positions and policies.
Out of the death of the SDLP a new and better political landscape could emerge. But as long as the SDLP clings to life it will not happen. All the more reason to put it out of its misery quickly. Another poor leader – Ritchie or McDonnell – will not help it.