Jude Collins

Friday, 11 December 2009

Come together?

Why are there two nationalist parties? Why are there three unionist parties?

Some would say the big dividing line between the SDLP and Sinn Fein was the question of violence. Sinn Fein’s links to the IRA were always anathema to the SDLP who, like Daniel O’Connell in the nineteenth century, didn’t believe that Irish independence was worth the spilling of one drop of Irish blood. Sinn Fein disagreed and so the gulf between the two was established.

But that was until nearly fifteen years ago. Now the IRA appears to be truly a thing of the past, why aren’t the SDLP and Sinn Fein uniting to present a common front at, say, the next elections to Westminster? Three reasons, probably: one, few smaller firms want to be taken over by a bigger firm. Second– and perhaps more importantly – the SDLP are a middle-class party. They live in middle class areas, they put forward middle-class candidates (lawyers, doctors, accountants) for election. Sinn Fein’s core is working-class and their candidates tend to be the occasional teacher but more commonly men and women who look, sound and are working-class. The third reason the SDLP and Sinn Fein stay apart has to do with power. If you’ve got machinery and organization in place, it’s hard to dismantle that, because the new dispensation will mean change and change is always a threat.

As for unionism, the Alliance Party don’t want to merge with either of the two other parties, because it sees itself as a cross-community beacon of hope. Besides, they’re more refined than the rough-and-tumble DUP or even the slightly less rough-and-tumble UUP. And what about the DUP and the UUP – might they come together? Only yesterday there was a call from Ian Óg Paisley for an agreed unionist candidate in South Belfast and Tyrone and Fermanagh. “Think of the major boost it would be to the confidence of the unionist community to see Gildernew turfed out in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Alasdair McDonnell given his marching orders in South Belfast” he says. Mind you, Ian Óg’s daddy built a political career by running against majority unionist parties, so it’s a bit rich for Ian Óg to now wring his hands at the effects of a split unionist vote.

So why is he doing it? Because the DUP in general is worried that it may suffer at the Westminster election in May, particularly at the hands of Jim Allister’s TUV. And because Ian Óg in particular is worried that he may suffer in the Westminster election at the hands of TUV top dog Jim Allister. Don’t forget, Allister plans to stand in North Antrim – the constituency currently represented by Ian Paisley Snr and long thought of as Ian Óg’s rightful inheritance.


  1. Is mergers on either side a realistic prospect, given the history of divisions and the relatively strong voting bases of both SF and the DUP? Why would they bother?

  2. Jude, some others would say that violence was only the most glaringly obvious impediment and that there are a whole range of values which separate Sinn Fein from the SDLP and indeed a wide range of more fundamentally democratic organisations. In any case the impediment remains in weakened form. Take the absolutely craven SF defence of the Provisional IRA in the Paul Quinn case; their character assassination of the murder victim; their continued political attacks on the family's campaign for justice; and their constant attacks on the Garda and PSNI investigation. More fundamentally, what is the obsession with mergers and common fronts which are bound to have a sectarian character? It would not be justified by the common objective of a united Ireland, because the SDLP has some credentials as a persuader for a united Ireland and Sinn Fein has none whatsoever.