At a special SDLP conference in Newry on 9 February, delegates voted 121 to 53 to endorse a proposal from the party’s leadership to establish formal cross-border “policy partnership” with the Republic of Ireland’s main opposition party, Fianna Fáil. A rival motion, to affirm the SDLP’s “long established relationships with Fine Gael and Labour as well as Fianna Fáil” and to explore less exclusive arrangements with these parties, was defeated.
The internal debate was highly divisive, with party activists taking to the national press and social media to air disagreements. In the wake of the special conference, the chairs of the SDLP’s Youth, Women’s and LGBT+ sections have resigned, citing procedural irregularities at the conference. On 11 February, one of the party’s most high-profile figures, South Belfast MLA Claire Hanna, widely seen as sitting on the social democratic wing of the organisation, resigned from the SDLP whip (reducing the Assembly Group to 11) and as the party’s Brexit spokesperson. She says she will remain a party member.
The move should be seen as an effort to halt the seemingly terminal decline of the SDLP. It has struggled to find a role in Six County politics ever since the Good Friday Agreement. Between 2001 and 2017, the SDLP lost around 44% of its vote. It has long been supplanted by Sinn Féin as the main party of the nationalist population. In the last Assembly election in 2017, the party won only 12 seats — half the number of seats it won at its high-point in 1998.
The SDLP leadership now hopes that cross-border co-operation will appeal to voters hoping for 32-county solutions to problems such as Brexit. Some see the decision, however, as the first step towards a full-on merger with Fianna Fail, which would simply spell the end of the SDLP by other means. Already the move has potential implications for the SDLP’s relations with the governing party Fine Gael, and particularly with its sister party in the Republic, the Irish Labour Party.
The SDLP is currently a member of the Party of European Socialists (PES, together with Irish Labour, the British Labour Party and other European social democratic parties) and sat as part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament when it had an MEP. The Irish Labour Party commented, implying that these affiliations could now be challenged: “The consequences of the partnership decision will now be carefully considered by the Labour party in the coming weeks, and in consultation with our colleagues in the Party of European Socialists.”
The main concern for socialists is not the future health of the SDLP, which although it has members of a social-democratic or Labour Party persuasion, has drawn its support fairly narrowly from the Catholic population, and advocates socially conservative positions on abortion and a range of other issues. Rather, the paramount interest is in the implications of these developments for independent working-class politics in Ireland.
The SDLP’s affiliation to the Socialist International has long been cited as a reason why no Labour Party could stand candidates in the 6 counties. Both British and Irish Labour parties allow membership in the North. The British Labour Party attracted a short-lived but large flurry of supporters in the wake of Corbyn’s election as leader. That was never organisationally consolidated, however, and seems to have largely receded.
Given the unresolved national question in Ireland, and the continued sectarian division, it would be wrong simply to advocate that the British Labour Party stands in the North. One option that could be explored, however, is a confederal vehicle for labour representation in the Six Counties, with close links to the Labour Parties in the Republic of Ireland and Britain. Within that, however, an independent labour movement programme to resolve the national question and unite the working-class in the struggle for socialism could at least be openly discussed and thrashed out.
In such a debate, Workers’ Liberty advocates a federal united Ireland, with a degree of autonomy and local self-rule for the Protestant-majority areas in the north-east, and protections for the Catholic minority in those areas. That could lay the basis for persuading Protestant workers who currently support Unionist parties, and building working-class unity across the sectarian divide.