The SDLP must think they’re living under a curse. It started around the turn of the century, when Sinn Féin moved out and passed them on the electoral road, and varoomed off into the middle distance. More immediately they must feel particularly jinxed. They were arguing over their leadership as Sinn Féin rolled into Belfast and held its first ring-a-ding Ard Fheis in the north, in the nice new Waterfront Hall. Then the prospects of the SDLP leadership candidates were forgotten as Martin McGuinnness grabbed the headlines by joining the race for the Aras. That went on for weeks, and the fact that McGuinness didn’t win was small enough consolation. Now the SDLP are holding their annual conference, not in the Waterfront Hall but the Ramada Hotel in Belfast. Not quite stage centre, really. And yes, the air this weekeend is filled with excited cries and interviews and TV cameras, but they’re not for Patsy McGlone or Alex Attwood, they’re for Justin Bieber and Lady Ga-ga. That massive stage in front of Belfast City hall has been constructed, not for Conall McDevitt but for MTV performers.
So you bet it’s tough when you’ve been No 1 and now you’re a distant No 2. A bit like being in a game where you know, no matter how hard you sweat or how much you urge your men forward, you’re going to be beaten. Discouraging. Makes you want to tear off your jersey, puncture the ball and head for the changing rooms with a shouted “Aw, fuck the lot of yis!” over your shoulder. But there must be a small corner in the heart of the SDLP candidates that is comforted, that feels warmth. Because the SDLP does have its die-hard supporters. They still elect MLAs.
That’s because there are those nationalist voters who have always identified with the SDLP. Like the candidates for SDLP leadership, they’re, getting on a bit in years, but that doesn’t mean their opinions have softened. In fact, as their arteries have hardened, so have their opinions. Not so much in favour of the wreckage they see when they look at the SDLP as in the contempt they feel when they think of Sinn Féin.
There’s the violence thing of course. Some of these people have, directly or indirectly, been damaged by IRA violence, and they lay responsibility for that solely at the feet of Sinn Féin. They subscribe to the thesis, successfully propagated south of the border, that the IRA were the initiatiors and the continuers of violence for more than two decades. This despite the fact that early black-and-white TV images show civil rights marchers being beaten off the streets,
and later images show bodies bleeding from bullet wounds inflicted by the British Army. None of that counts – the IRA was the cause of it all, start, middle and finish.
Then there’s the class thing. You want to vote for political leaders you look up to, and when the SDLP faithful look at Sinn Féin they see people who’ve had limited schooling, people who say ‘Done’ instead of ‘Did’ and ‘have went’ instead of ‘have gone’, and their middle-class sensibilities recoil. How could you vote for somebody like that, with their awful English and their equally awful jail-Irish? It’s no accident that of the four SDLP leadership candidates, one is a doctor and one a lawyer, and all four would rather rip out their own tongue, toast it and eat it in small forkfuls than say ‘infer’ when they mean ‘imply’.
So the SDLP gathered at the Ramada have that small consolation, that there are those in the northern population who remain faithful to the “dignified protest” days, and will go on being faithful until their dying day. For a small pool of the northern population, Patsy McGlone, Conall McDevitt, Alastair McDonnell and Alex Attwood are still big fish. The trouble is, the pool keeps getting smaller every year and even the bravest fish struggle to breathe as the pool dries up.