In Northern Ireland, the local government elections are pencilled in for Thursday 4th May 2023, and jungle drums are hinting the much-mooted Northern Ireland Assembly poll will be in February.
And given the strength of Sinn Fein in the opinion polls south of the border, don’t rule out the current Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition losing a vote of no confidence in the Dail and voters having to head to the ballot boxes for a snap Leinster House General Election.
In Northern Ireland, the opinion polls still have Sinn Fein on course to retain its position as the largest party in the Assembly, give or take a couple of seats at the expense of the SDLP or Alliance.
The big question for moderate nationalism now becomes - has the SDLP run its course as a political movement and a new liberal nationalist party is needed to halt the Sinn Fein rollercoaster?
Apart from an electoral disaster in Foyle at the last Westminster General Election, Sinn Fein is consistently outpolling the SDLP in every election, eating into the SDLP vote with such bites that the ‘Stoops’ cannot even get enough MLAs returned to Stormont to guarantee the party a seat at the power-sharing Executive table.
Essentially, Sinn Fein has been dishing out the same kind of electoral beating to the SDLP that the SDLP began delivering to the old Irish Nationalist Party after the fall of the original Stormont Parliament in 1972.
Ever since the formation of Northern Ireland in the 1920s, the Nationalist Party was the voice of moderate and constitutional republicanism in the state.
But under the influence of nationalist icons such as Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Seamus Mallon, the SDLP snatched that mantel from the Nationalist Party. Since the turn of the new millennium, Sinn Fein has been steadily eating into the moderate, middle class Catholic vote and is by far the voice of nationalism in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, if the IRA’s ruling Army Council can keep its head down, Sinn Fein may well also end up as the largest party in the Dail with party president Mary Lou McDonald claiming the coveted Taoiseach’s post.
Had it not been for the republican hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 which kick-started Sinn Fein’s electoral bandwagon, the old Irish Independence Party, formed in the 1970s and once fronted by ex-British Army officer John Turnley, could have been in poll position to take over from the SDLP.
The IIP suffered a bitter blow in 1980 when the UDA murdered Turnley in Carnlough in Co Antrim when the area was part of the old North Antrim Westminster constituency.
The need to form a new liberal nationalist party was first mooted by myself in an article in 2019.
The one aspect which the Shinners always gave the two fingers to the Stoops over was that the republican movement’s mouthpiece was organised on an all-island basis, while the SDLP was limited to Northern Ireland.
Attempts to link the SDLP to Southern-based parties in retaliation proved fruitless as SDLP activists split three ways - the socialists to the Irish Labour Party; the hard green wing to Fianna Fáil, and the conservative middle class wing to Fine Gael.
Even moves by the Alliance Party - viewed for many years as a soft ‘u’ Unionist party - to rebrand itself as a soft ‘r’ republican party have not enabled Alliance to become a significant electoral force east of the River Bann in traditional nationalist heartlands.
So what is the future for the Stoops? The solution is deceptively simple - bin the party and start over again as the SDLP did in the Seventies.
The new movement should simply be called the Liberal Nationalist Party and it should have a three-fold target - re-capturing electorally the Catholic middle class voters lost to Sinn Fein; targeting the peace process generation of new or first-time voters for whom Hume and Mallon are merely names in a history book, and encouraging nationalist voters who have forsaken the ballot box to register and vote.
In selling the liberal nationalist agenda, it must avoid the pitfall of merely been seen by voters as ‘a more green version of Alliance’, or indeed, falling into the same trap which befell another liberal project, the now defunct NI21 conceived by former liberal UUP MLAs Basil McCrea of Lagan Valley and John McCallister of South Down.
That experiment crashed and burned before it even left the political runway. Likewise, the new LNP must also make itself transfer friendly to the pro-Union community as a viable alternative to the SDLP if Unionists want to electorally deliver a bloody nose to the Shinners.
As the debate over a mythical United Ireland gathers momentum, Unionists need to ask themselves the question - in this supposed debate, which is the lesser of two evils; the Irish Unity being pushed by the Provisional IRA’s political wing, or the wannabe united Ireland dreamt up by the LNP? It’s a ‘no brainer’ for Unionists!
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.