Declan O'Loan's solo-run in favour of nationalist unity, and subsequent rapid slap-down from his party (the SDLP) places a question-mark over his future in the party.
O'Loan is the SDLP's spokesperson on Finance and Personnel, and is Vice Chair of the Assembly's Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee. As such he is a relative heavy-weight in the party, and not a political novice. His statement in favour of "a major realignment of northern nationalism" cannot have been made lightly – he knew that it was controversial, and that it would be seen as a direct challenge to the leadership of his own party.
Perhaps he was surprised by the rapidity and severity of the party's reaction. It forced him to retract his statement within hours, and left him humiliated, isolated and in the dog-house.
Where does that leave his political future?
O'Loan is a mainstay of the SDLP in North Antrim, but North Antrim is certainly not an SDLP stronghold. Although he was elected to the Assembly in 2007, the constituency has changed and a proportion of the nationalist electorate that elected him is now in East Antrim. In fact the SDLP in North Antrim was already suffering before the boundary changes – when Seán Farren was its standard-bearer it used to get around 16-18% of the vote, but by 2007 this was down to 12.2%. This year, with the new constituency boundaries, the SDLP managed only 8.8% of the vote – too few to have a serious hope of retaining O'Loan's seat in the Assembly. According to the recent Westminster election results, unionism has over 5 Assembly quotas in North Antrim, but nationalism has only one-and-a-half. Sinn Féin was the dominant nationalist party in the constituency both in 2007 and in 2010 (though Daithí McKay has also lost a lot of votes with the transfer of Glenaan, Glenariff and Glendun to East Antrim), and there is no reason to expect a change in that situation. The single nationalist seat in North Antrim would thus probably have been won by McKay even before O'Loan's recent difficulties.
Now, however, O'Loan is in his party's dog-house – and how can he seriously campaign for a party that he effectively wanted to see disappear?
Yet for the SDLP to dump O'Loan would be electoral suicide in North Antrim. He would take with him many supporters, including those with whom he had discussed his original 'nationalist unity' ideas. As he himself put it: "I have discussed the proposition of a new single nationalist party with the grassroots SDLP membership in North Antrim, including the councillors, and it was very strongly supported."
The next few days or weeks ought to clarify O'Loan's position – and the SDLP's. His belief in nationalist unity will make him a liability next year in the Assembly elections if he stands, but if he is 'de-selected' by the SDLP then the party will self-destruct in North Antrim. Will he take the next step, and resign from the party? And if he does, will he be alone?
It is not out of the question that O'Loan's statement could become the catalyst for precisely what he was seeking – a major realignment of northern nationalism – by splitting the SDLP down the middle. The party is already divided between the Ritchie and McDonnell factions, and between the Fianna Fáilers and the others. If O'Loan leaves, and takes other with him, the rump that would be left may not be enough to constitute a serious party any more.
If O'Loan leaves, his destination would be very interesting. It is very unlikely to be Sinn Féin – and the only other serious possibility is Fianna Fáil, which does not yet have a presence in the constituency. Any other destinations would effectively end his political career – but maybe it is already over?