“There has been talk of us joining with Fianna Fáil and there are some in the SDLP who like such a proposition. But let me make our position clear.
Merger with Fianna Fail? - not on my watch.”
Given the audience – a hopeful anti-Fianna Fáil opposition party – it is hardly surprising that Ritchie took such a strong position against Fianna Fáil. And the SDLP, after all, is supposedly a socialist party, so closer links with Labour would make apparent sense.
But is the SDLP really a ‘socialist party’? And, equally importantly, if it thinks it is, should it really be one? After all, it is more than anything else the party that is supported by the conservative Catholic section of the north’s population – farmers, professionals, civil servants, and so on. The more radical side of northern nationalism is catered for by Sinn Féin.
And does northern nationalism really need two ‘socialist’ parties, and no other real choice? What of nationalist conservatives, Christian Democrats, capitalists, etc? Who are they expected to vote for, if one of the two nationalist parties “shares a special bond with Irish Labour” (according to Ritchie), and the other sees its allies in national liberation movements worldwide?
Northern nationalism needs more than a statist labour party and a ‘revolutionary’ party. These two positions occupy only a part of the political spectrum – though in welfare-dependent Northern Ireland this may be less obvious than in real countries. If the north is to have any hope of building a real economy, and a real society, then it must have parties that represent the full spectrum of opinion.
For that reason Ritchie was wrong to nail her colours to the Labour mast. Labour represents a statist approach, directed by the needs of the large public sector unions. It is economically naïve and intervenionist, and lacks the skills to develop the economy and thus bring prosperity to everyone. Ritchie should have maintained the SDLP’s policy of neutrality between the southern parties – accepting support from each. By identifying too closely with one minor party, Ritchie risks cutting the SDLP off from the largest and (still) most successful party – Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil would make a much better fit for the SDLP – as a populist party, including business, labour, urban and rural interests. Fianna Fáil is a genuinely broad church – although it is very close to business it also has overseen the longest and most successful era of industrial peace with the trades unions.
With Fianna Fáil the SDLP could have developed as a wider, more inclusive and populist party. With Labour the SDLP is backing into a statist cul-de-sac, and is leaving sections of its potential support uncatered for. Where they can turn is hard to see – certainly not to the right-wing unionist parties.
Ritchie’s closer identification with Labour may end up creating more space for Fianna Fáil to enter northern politics in its own right, offering a Christian Democratic electoral platform that would eat into the SDLP’s core support. With Sinn Féin to their left, the SDLP would then find itself squeezed – and those who know politics in the south know that Fianna Fáil is a professional and determined party. If it sets out to attract the centrist and right-of-centre Catholic vote, it will do so without mercy, and, thanks to Ritchie, the SDLP could be extinguished.
Ritchie’s loss of southern neutrality could end up killing off her party entirely. Her watch may turn out to be the last watch.