Sunday Business Post
27 March 2005
By Paul T Colgan
With expectation mounting that the British general election will be called for early May, the SDLP and Sinn Féin are preparing to face off for the most critical battle in their recent history. Having endured more than three months of unprecedented criticism from the Irish, British and US political establishments, Sinn Féin will seek to drive home the message that it is unbloodied. At the same time, the SDLP leader Mark Durkan is still fighting for his political life.
The SDLP holds three Westminster seats. John Hume is making way for Durkan in Foyle, former deputy leader Seamus Mallon is handing over the reigns to Dominic Bradley in Newry and Armagh, while Eddie McGrady is again standing in South Down.
SDLP insiders concede that Mallon’s seat is all but lost to Sinn Féin’s coming man Conor Murphy, leaving the real battles to retain Foyle and South Down. McGrady is deemed safe having represented the constituency since 1987 and built up a strong personal vote.
But Durkan’s fate is finely balanced and the bookies are hedging their bets. Paddy Power is this weekend giving even odds that the SDLP will retain Foyle. The bookmaker is offering 5/1 that the party will win no seats, 9/4 that it will salvage one seat, and 5/1 that it will hold all three.
Nicholas Whyte, the Alliance party’s former director of elections and one of the North’s more respected number crunchers, believes Foyle is up for grabs and that the prospect of Durkan losing the seat is a distinct possibility.
“The chances of Sinn Féin picking up in Newry and Armagh are very strong,” he said.
“They are only 1,500 votes behind in Foyle going on the last Assembly election results. If they do pick up two seats then the second seat will be there.”
In 2003, Durkan watched his party’s share of the Foyle vote slump by almost 12 per cent, bringing Sinn Féin’s combined support to within 1,500 votes of the SDLP. Hume had benefited from a huge personal vote in 2001 and topped the poll with almost 12,000 more votes than Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin.
The thought that Durkan might lose out to McLaughlin in May is not one the SDLP party leader dares to contemplate. Were he to lose, serious questions would hang over his leadership and the very future of the party.
Whyte said, however, that as May’s election will be first past-the-post – unlike the Assembly poll, which was by proportional representation – Sinn Féin will have to work hard to bridge the healthy margin bequeathed to Durkan by Hume.
But Durkan is taking the threat seriously. The SDLP last week embarked on a new campaign designed to win over republicans in light of the Northern Bank robbery and the killing of Robert McCartney. Last Monday it unveiled a policy document outlining its pursuit of a United Ireland.
‘A Better Way to a Better Ireland’ envisages that referendums in the two jurisdictions be held simultaneously on the constitutional question.
The new campaign comes just a month after the launch of a similar one by Sinn Féin, leading to claims by republicans that the SDLP is jumping on the unity bandwagon. Sinn Féin has called on the government to prepare a green paper on Irish unity – a request that was last week rebuffed by foreign affairs minister Dermot Ahern who called it a “red herring” while weighing in behind the SDLP.
SDLP strategists make no bones about the party’s republican credentials and say that the document had been in “gestation” for some time. “We would hope that referenda would be held as soon as the political institutions are bedded down and working properly,” said a SDLP source.
“We’re not shy about referenda and we don’t see why they would necessarily be defeated – we believe a majority for a united Ireland can be won.”
Fianna Fáil has again tacked its colours to the SDLP mast, just as it did before the Assembly elections of 2003.
Dermot Ahern last week attended the Newry launch of the ‘Better Ireland’ document and compared those calling for a green paper to “snake-oil salesmen”. While Ahern no doubt intended that his remarks be directed at Sinn Féin, he also managed to ensnare former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds with the barb.
Reynolds had earlier been reported as calling for just such a green paper.
The Dublin political establishment is certainly hoping that Durkan survives May’s challenges. Flanking the SDLP leader in Dublin last week were Liz O’Donnell of the Progressive Democrats and Labour’s Liz MacManus.
While such camaraderie may lift spirits in the SDLP camp, it is unlikely to transfer into extra votes. Bertie Ahern’s endorsement in 2003 did nothing to stop Sinn Féin consolidating its lead over the party – taking 24 seats to the SDLP’s 18.
Neither did the presence of a contingent of political advisers drafted in from Fianna Fáil, Labour and PD gene pools to assist with the SDLP campaign.
A recent opinion poll carried out for the Belfast Telegraph will have set SDLP nerves on edge showing support for it and Sinn Féin at level pegging on 20 per cent each. Given that the poll was conducted amid sustained criticism of Sinn Féin over the IRA’s alleged involvement in the Northern Bank robbery, a money laundering operation and the killing of Robert McCartney, republicans took solace from the healthy showing.
A poll for the same paper in the days before 2003’s elections significantly underestimated support for Sinn Féin and predicted that the SDLP would emerge as the largest nationalist party.
The respectable showing by Sinn Féin’s Meath by-election candidate Joe Reilly, who actually increased his share of the vote by 3 per cent, suggested to many observers that the party had not been heavily damaged by recent events.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin is preoccupied with the prospect that only one unionist candidate will run in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and that the SDLP may stand aside in West Tyrone to make way for independent Kieran Deeney.
The Ulster Unionists and the DUP are debating whether to proceed with a pact in Michelle Gildernew’s constituency, while reports last week suggested the SDLP was split over whether Deeney, an Assembly member, should be given a free run at Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty.
A unionist pact would cause Gildernew problems. Were the DUP’s Arlene Foster (who defected from the UUP along with Jeffrey Donaldson) selected as a unity candidate, Sinn Féin would have to work hard to hoover up support from SDLP voters.
Gildernew beat the UUP’s James Cooper by 53 votes in 2001 and many believed the unionist was deprived of the seat after the decision of independent anti-agreement unionist Jim Dixon to run.