In fact, in terms of actual republican values, the SDLP is a more republican party:
Yet the media refer to Sinn Féin as the republican party, and the SDLP as nationalist. The reality is probably the inverse.
The SDLP's vision is a reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous new Ireland.
As the party of civil rights, the SDLP is working for an Ireland free from poverty, prejudice and injustice; a vibrant country of energy, enterprise and endeavour, where economic prosperity delivers better public services and greater opportunities for all.
The SDLP wants to build an Ireland where conflict, violence and sectarianism become footnotes to our past; where reconciliation, equality and inclusion are chapter headings in the new story we will write together. We will build a better Ireland where we truly cherish all the children of the nation equally.
The SDLP wants this generation and those that will follow to live in an Ireland that stands tall in the world as a champion of global justice, environmental protection & sustainable development; an Ireland that stands out as a beacon of hope for peace, democracy, human rights and respect for diversity.
Sinn Féin’s self description is focussed on the achievement of the nationalist project:
For 100 years now Sinn Féin has been to the forefront of bringing about change in Ireland. Republicans and Socialists from Constance Markievicz, James Connolly and Liam Mellows to Bobby Sands, Mairéad Farrell and Joe Cahill have brought us closer to our goal of Irish unity and independence. Today’s generation of republicans continue that work.The SDLP’s self-description, though also couched in the context of Irish reunification, talks much more about the type of society that it wishes to see in the new Ireland – and that society is one that is republican in the true sense.
Ironically, the aims of republicanism and Irish nationalism are unconnected, despite their popular conflation. It is not necessary to be a nationalist to be a republican – some unionists like Alex Kane are openly republican in relation to the UK constitution – and in almost all practical terms the UK is itself a republic. The residual existence of a largely powerless monarch blinds many in Britain to the fact that their country is a de facto republic.
But whether or not the UK complies with 99% of the republican agenda (the other 1% is the monarch and the undemocratic House of Lords), Irish nationalists still do not feel themselves to be a part of it, and continue to aspire to reunite their country as a single democratic republic.
In that sense both the SDLP and Sinn Féin are actually nationalist parties, but the SDLP is a republican nationalist party, while Sinn Féin is simply a nationalist party.
This distinction is not unimportant. From outside Irish nationalism may look quite monolithic (the famous pan-nationalist front of unionist paranoia), but the reality is that there are as many different and competing strands within nationalism as anywhere else. For many people, while it is important that Ireland is reunited and sovereign, the achievement of these objectives is not in itself sufficient. A repressively Catholic Ireland, or an economically-illiterate Ireland, or an inward-looking insular Ireland, are not what most true republicans want, and any political movement that promotes one is doubly unhelpful to the cause – because that party would lose the support of many true republicans, and because that party would be unable to attract the support of those outside the traditional nationalist camp.
Many commenters have pointed out the obvious truth that Sinn Féin is essentially a Catholic nationalist party, and one that remains closely associated with the 30 years of war that Northern Ireland endured. Most resign themselves to the inevitable continuation of Sinn Féin and its seemingly inexorable usurpation of the lion’s share of the nationalist vote. Few – bar the dissident republicans, who exclude themselves from normal political discourse by their continued support for political violence – dare to think the unthinkable, or to say it out loud: Sinn Féin, its history, its members, its methods and its policies, are part of the problem.
For Irish nationalism to succeed in its project – and for that project to have been worth the effort – it must be a truly republican project, and as things stand at present Sinn Féin is not.
The future of the Irish nationalist project is less certain as Sinn Féin gains in strength. The chance of attracting (ex-)unionist support drops to zero, and even Irish nationalist republicans may drift away into apathy.
Sinn Féin is not sacrosanct. It is a political vehicle that succeeded earlier vehicles – the Redmondites, the Parnellites, the Fenians, the United Irishmen … Just as parties or movements grow, they decline and are replaced by others more suited to their times. Sinn Féin’s time has passed, and it is time for Irish republicans to create a new republican party that is neither Sinn Féin nor the SDLP. The latter, though republican in policy is ineffectual in practice. This is something that some SDLP members have clearly realised (including the unfortunate Declan O’Loan).
It is time for Irish republicans to start to create a truly republican party – one that robustly supports democracy, inclusion, fairness, tolerance, the rule of law, and that creates the conditions that allow all citizens to enjoy a full and worthwhile life. Of course all parties pay lip-service to such values, but a truly republican party would actually practice them.
Let a new party arise – a party that unites Catholic, Protestant, dissenter, atheist and all others is a common endeavour. Let the rump of Sinn Féin co-exist, if for no other reason that to emphasise the difference. And then let the battle of ideas commence.