There is a strange thing about the Norn Iron Political Cycle.
We are constantly told on message boards like Slugger O’Toole that the SDLP is in “terminal decline”. This is an article of faith held by Slugger’s core “team” and of course the Metrotextual commenters, most of whom have never been outside South Belfast in their lives.
This “SDLP is Dead” narrative intensifies during an election campaign.
Then we have one day of voting and three days of counting…which actually produces some kind of definitive result.
This does tend to prove that SDLP is still actually alive.
But it will not stop commentators (some who really should know better) from just picking up the old lazy narrative.
So can I just put one fact out there?
The District Council Elections were on new boundaries.
The 2011 figures can be adjusted to show the NOTIONAL number of seats that the Parties actually “held” going into the 2014 Election.
You can see these “notional” figures on the excellent ARK website.
I am indebted to them for the following figures.
Sinn Fein had 115 seats.
Alliance Party had 34 seats.
SDLP had 67 seats.
The actual 2014 results gave SF 105, Alliance 32 and SDLP 66.
Or to put it another way …SF “lost” 10 seats, Alliance “lost” 2 seats (from a very small base) and SDLP “lost” one seat.
That is probably worth repeating…the SDLP LOST ONE SEAT. ALLIANCE LOST TWO. SINN FEIN LOST TEN.
Lets just do one other figure.
There are eleven District Councils.
Sinn Fein has representation on ten of them.
Alliance has representation on seven of them.
SDLP has representation on ALL of them.
Lets go for another set of figures.
SF lost 0.7% of its vote.
Alliance lost 0.7% of its vote.
SDLP lost 1.4% of its vote.
Oh dear. Those last figures will delight anti-SDLP people. But it doesnt really look like SDLP lost any votes to its main rivals. Rather it lost ground to Apathy.
With a factor of dropping more first preference votes than its rivals and paradoxically losing fewer seats, SDLP can probably claim to be more transfer-friendly than previously.
A fig leaf?
Well the other parties have a fig leaf.
Sinn Fein can point to their stunning victories in the Republic to mitigate poor northern results.
Alliance will be glad that NI21 completely imploded. Just how many seats they would have lost with a NI21 which was punching its weight.
Alliance got lucky. Alliance got VERY lucky.
Tired old Party for MIDDLE AGED MEN? Well…hardly. A stunning 35% of SDLP candidates were women. And in winnable seats…40% of successful SDLP candidates were women. Certainly better than most places in the western world.
The vitriol that SDLP is “middle class” is spat out.
I am sensitive to that.
I do that whole “you can take the boy out of West Belfast…but you cant take West Belfast out of the boy” thing. I even did that spiel in Texas last year. I felt myself choking up at times, just talking about it.
But increasingly “I am a stranger here myself” (actually thats true of Belfast as a whole).
When all is said and done my father was chronically ill and looked down on by our working class neighbours. He survived to be 65 and draw his pension and not have the neighbours know he was on sickness benefit. He could look the working class squarely in the eye.
Yet he was ambitious for his two children, who both got the Eleven Plus and got to grammar school.
It was a time when Ambition was a working class value. When Working Class aspired to their children being “middle class” and getting out of here.
Which of course is what I did. From Ballymurphy to idyllic village.
And its what Mrs FitzjamesHorse did. From Kashmir Road to idyllic village.
It is a journey many have made. Not to mention the many “middle class” who still live in West Belfast. As Dr Joe Hendron,former SDLP MP for West Belfast put it two years ago at the SDLP Youth Conference (held in West Belfast) “People ask me…why SDLP? And I tell them because I was a General Practitioner (family doctor) in West Belfast”.
See thats the thing. When Sinn Fein supporters sneer at SDLP being “middle class”…well there are as SDLP working class members …but if “middle class” is an insult, then why do Sinn Fein sneer at the teachers who teach their kids in West Belfast, the social workers who serve the area, the doctors and the nurses in the Royal Victoria Hospital…people who serve the West Belfast working class.
Indeed Mrs FJH has served that community for over thirty five years and only five of those years while she lived there. She is that crazy kinda person with a work ethic, who travels to West Belfast because she cant let people down.
Indeed any Sinn Fein member brought to the Serious Crime Suite at Antrim PSNI Station is likely to demand an impeccably middle class solicitor.
Or merely buying a holiday home in County Donegal…those mortgage brokers, bankers and insurance people…all kinda middle class.
But if you sneer at SDLP “middle class”…then why not sneer at Padraig Pearse, the barrister-poet of 1916….not to mention Plunkett and McDonagh.
I guess thats how it goes…there are middle class people who like to help people. There are middle class people, who have working class backgrounds and whether thru a sense of decency or guilt …we choose not to forget our roots.
We are not patronising anyone …so dont sneer at us. Please.
There are of course middle class people who forget their roots. I know a few. Id call them the Alliance Party.
Yet there is an odd thing that makes me uncomfortable.
In 1974 there were two Westminster General Elections…February and October. I was on duty for SDLP. Cant remember which election…but about twenty minutes before polling closed, the IRA came into the school and sprayed machine gun fire. They claimed they were shooting at the RUC…actually they just opened fire and got away.
So I was intrigued last week when a SDLP colleague spoke about an intimidating atmosphere at West Belfast polling stations. Yes she is young and yes she is not from West Belfast…but it was an eye opener.
This is the underbelly of Sinn Fein. Hardened men and women in West Belfast who will shout personal insults at a youngster.
See…this isnt Twitter…harmless banter with a fellow Politics student.
Not a seminar. Not a debate.
Not a message board.
This is Politics in the raw. In West Belfast. Supporters of a Party that I give a second preference to…because they are still better than any other alternative.
And yet its not just about Election Time. Its about Control on a daily basis.
Its cradle to the grave Sinn Fein.
Its not just the monuments to IRA volunteers.
Its not just the murals.
Its not just the black taxis driven by ex-prisoners.
Its not just the GAA…apolitical…but infiltrated.
Its not just the Irish Music because that in itself is apolitical.
Or Irish Language Education …also in itself…apolitical.
Or An Feile…the annual West Belfast festival. Surely apolitical but will there ever be a SDLP voice at the flagship Q&A in An Culturlann?
Wasnt Caitriona Ruane (later to be a Sinn Fein MLA) a Director?
Wasnt Danny Morrison (a former Sinn Fein MLA) a Director.
Cradle to Grave. Sinn Feins presence is suffocating.
Curiously Sinn Fein advocate Diversity …but theres not that much in West Belfast.
This isnt Ulster Tatler politics.
This is real.
In those circumstances, SDLP did pretty well.
As the first results last week came thru, I was pretty despondent.
SDLP had easily had the best campaign, except of course for that bloody Party Election Broadcast.
And I left an offline message for a friend 5,000 miles away.
So I defer to her in this case.
The SDLP message is a difficult one. We make a case.
We dont do Slogans.
And thats almost a Duty.
As it turned out I am not that “down” now. I am irritated by the “SDLP are dead” narrative.
I think I can point at Derry and a little local difficulty that screwed the SDLP.
And fisticuffs and bad feeling in the North West.
And I am even hearted that decent people are making a case for SDLP values.
All it takes is for SDLP to pay more attention to its friends than its enemies.
This Blog…”Keeping An Eye On the Czar of Russia” is a friend to SDLP. But it might surprise you to know that I dont get Press Releases or “heads up” from the Party. Most of the stuff that I learn about, I get from Facebook.
I bet Newton Emerson gets Press Releases.