A person would need to be totally politically naïve to believe that the election-battered SDLP can be revived. That experiment hatched by John Hume and the late Gerry Fitt to obliterate Eddie McAteer’s Irish Nationalist Party has itself run its course.
What is needed to combat Sinn Fein is a new Northern-based moderate nationalist movement with a strong moral influence on abortion and same-sex marriage.
I used to think that the solution to the moderate nationalist dilemma was to merge the SDLP with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to combat Sinn Fein’s all-island identity.
There was also the alternative that now that Fianna Fail had organised in Northern Ireland, that republican party’s next move was to formally contest elections, with perhaps next year’s local governmental poll a top target.
Even if there is another Westminster snap poll over Brexit, at least Fianna Fail MPs would take their Commons seats. But there’s another elephant in the political room which even Unionism has had to deal with, which Southern republicanism wants to avoid - sharing power with Sinn Fein in a future Dail.
Southern politicians have witnessed the political mayhem which Sinn Fein is capable of unleashing on democracy if the crisis at Stormont is taken as a benchmark.
The nightmare scenario for both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael is that either may need to ‘sup soup with the devil’ politically and form a coalition government in Leinster House with the Provisional IRA’s political wing.
While Sinn Fein has already indicated at a special conference that it would be prepared to enter a coalition Dail government, both main Southern parties are still publicly adamant that a deal with Sinn Fein is not on the cards - no matter how much lipstick and mascara the republican movement plasters on its manifesto.
Sinn Fein is now piling all its political eggs into the Leinster House basket as it now firmly believes it can achieve its united Ireland via Dublin rather than Belfast.
The late Martin McGuinness’ legacy was to create a situation where it had backed the DUP partners into a political corner. For the time being, Sinn Fein can park its Stormont agenda because it has electorally blasted the SDLP off the political map.
Sinn Fein has wiped out the SDLP’s three MPs; the republican movement has more MLAs at Stormont, and if Sinn Fein can play its ‘middle class dolly bird’ card, it could dish out another battering to the SDLP in next year’s council elections in Ulster’s 11 super councils.
The bitter reality which the SDLP must face is that Sinn Fein has done to the SDLP, what the SDLP inflicted on the Irish Nationalist Party. While merger with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail contesting Northern elections may seem like the obvious solution, could it be implemented in time to prevent a moderate nationalist meltdown in the council poll?
The Sinn Fein all-island agenda has an Achilles’ Heel - the emergence of a new six-county moderate nationalist party in Northern Ireland, especially with battles over same-sex marriage and abortion about to become the big summer talking points.
Irish politics is full of ‘what ifs’. What if the Protestant nationalist leader - John Turnley - of the Irish Independence Party of the 1970s had not been murdered by the UDA in 1980 in the Co Antrim coastal village of Carnlough. If Turnley’s brand of radical middle class nationalism had eaten into the SDLP vote, would there have been a need for the republican hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981?
While I have maintained that Sinn Fein needed to copy the IIP in holding the moderate nationalist middle class voter base in Northern Ireland, that was before the republican movement abandoned its historical traditional values as espoused by Padraig Pearse.
As one of the main signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, he must be spinning in his grave at how the modern Sinn Fein movement has drifted away from the Christian faith and into the evil world of secular atheism. That was copper fastened earlier this month at the Sinn Fein ard fheis in the abortion debate with Sinn Fein’s clear message - if you are a nationalist with a pro-life Christian faith, then just clear off!
During the Troubles, Sinn Fein constantly acted as apologists for those who attacked the living; now the party has deteriorated into the pathetic apologists for those who wish to attack the unborn. How can any God-fearing Catholic who calls themselves a nationalist now vote for Sinn Fein?
Prayers for a miracle political revival for the SDLP will more than likely go unanswered. Only SDLP candidates who have built up a strong personal vote will hold their council seats in 2019. The local government poll in the weeks after Brexit will be a political Requiem Mass for the SDLP.
But moderate nationalists have one ace card - they can, and should, reform the IIP as a movement for pro-life Catholic voters. Stormont looks like being moth-balled for the foreseeable future. When it does return, there may well be a new realignment in Parliament Buildings - not along the traditional Unionist/Nationalist/Other divide, but along pro and anti-Christian lines.
Given the march of the secular society, I have often warned that Christians in the future may need to form their own party, although the odds of that succeeding are doubtful given the constant theological bickering among churches and denominations.
But there could be an unofficial Christian alliance between pro-life politicians across the political divide. Pro-choice campaigners were heralding the next stage in their secularist agenda with placards boasting ‘The North is Next’.
Politically and organisationally, moderate nationalist should pool their resources into forming a six-county movement rather than trying to organise on an all-island basis. Sinn Fein may not be completely derailed by a new IIP movement, but the brakes could be put on the bandwagon.
If the moderate nationalist fightback by the SDLP was genuine - and achievable - then the party should have reduced West Tyrone to a Sinn Fein marginal. But the reality is that West Tyrone is still a Sinn Fein stronghold.
The new IIP must be a moderate middle class nationalist movement which clearly espouses all that is good in conservative Catholicism, especially on the pro-life agenda. But moves to launch this movement must be made now as time is not on moderate nationalism’s side.
Dr John Coulter has been a journalist working in Northern Ireland since 1978. As well as being a former weekly newspaper editor, he has served as Religious Affairs Correspondent of the News Letter and is a past Director of Operations for Christian Communication Network television. He currently also writes political analysis articles for national newspaper titles. He is author of the ebook, An Saise Glas’: The Road to National Republicanism, available on Amazon Kindle.
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