Social Democratic and Labour Party
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) (Irish: Páirtí Sóisialta Daonlathach an Lucht Oibre) is a social-democratic, Irish nationalist political party in Northern Ireland. The SDLP currently has 12 MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly and two Members of Parliament (MPs) in Westminster.
The SDLP party platform advocates Irish reunification, and the further devolution of powers while Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. During the Troubles, the SDLP was the most popular Irish nationalist party in Northern Ireland, but since the Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1994, it has lost ground to the republican party Sinn Féin, which in 2001 became the more popular of the two parties for the first time. Established during the Troubles, a significant difference between the two parties was the SDLP's rejection of violence, in contrast to Sinn Féin's support for the Provisional IRA and physical force republicanism.
The party was founded in August 1970, when six Stormont MPs and one Senator, former members of the Republican Labour Party (a party with ties to the Irish Labour Party), the National Democratic Party (NDP, a small nationalist party that dissolved itself after the foundation of the SDLP), individual nationalists, former members of the Nationalist Party and members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, joined to form a new party.
The SDLP initially rejected the Nationalist Party's policy of abstentionism and sought to fight for civil rights within the Stormont system. However, the SDLP quickly came to the view that Stormont was unreformable, and withdrew from parliamentary involvement.
Following the abolition of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, the SDLP emerged as the second-largest party, and the largest party representing the nationalist community, in elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly established in 1973: the party won 19 out of 75 seats. The SDLP was one of the parties involved in the negotiations that resulted in the Sunningdale Agreement, which in turn resulted in the establishment of a power-sharing executive in January 1974. Gerry Fitt, the SDLP party leader, took office as deputy chief executive, taking government alongside the Ulster Unionist Party (led by Brian Faulkner) and the Alliance Party. The Assembly and Executive were short-lived, however, collapsing after only four months due to sustained opposition from within the unionist community regarding the role being given to the Irish government in terms of Northern Ireland, and it was to be 25 years before the party sat in government again.
The SDLP was a key player in the talks throughout the 1990s that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. John Hume won a Nobel Peace Prize that year with Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble in recognition of their efforts.
As a result of the Agreement, elections to a new Northern Ireland Assembly were held in June 1998; the SDLP emerged as the second-largest party overall, and the largest nationalist party, with 24 out of 108 seats. The party was then returned to government later in the year when a power-sharing Executive was established for Northern Ireland. The SDLP took office alongside the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and Sinn Féin, and the SDLP's Seamus Mallon became Deputy First Minister alongside the UUP's First Minister, David Trimble.
Upon Mallon's retirement in 2001, Mark Durkan succeeded him as Deputy First Minister.
There had been a debate in the party on the prospects of amalgamation with Fianna Fáil. Little came of this speculation and former party leader, Margaret Ritchie, rejected the idea. Speaking at the 2010 Irish Labour Party national conference in Galway she said that a merger would not happen while she was leader – "Merger with Fianna Fáil? Not on my watch." After his election as Fianna Fáil Leader in January 2011, Micheál Martin repeatedly dismissed the possibility of a merger or electoral alliance with the SDLP. In January 2019, the SDLP membership were e-mailed on the issue with the text "continuing on as normal is not an option", a reference to the party's declining fortunes.
In February 2019, at a special party conference, the members approved a partnership with Fianna Fáil, the main opposition party in the Republic of Ireland. Both parties shared policies on key areas including addressing the current political situation in Northern Ireland, improving public services in both jurisdictions of Ireland, such as healthcare and education, and bringing about further unity and co-operation of the people on the island and arrangements for a future poll on Irish reunification.
In contrast to Sinn Féin, which follows a policy of abstentionism, the SDLP MPs have always taken their seat in the Westminister parliament. The party's first MP was its leader Gerry Fitt who was already a sitting MP when the SDLP was founded. The SDLP's best result was in 1992 general election when they won four out of 17 seats. Its worst result was in 2017 when they lost all their seats. In 2019 they won two seats.
Although not abstentionist, SDLP MPs have protested the parliamentary oath required of every member of parliament. At the swearing in ceremony after the 2019 general election, the party leader Colum Eastwood said:
The SDLP, along with Sinn Féin, have long sought speaking rights in Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Republic's parliament. In 2005, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern leader of Fianna Fáil put forward a tentative proposal to allow MPs and MEPs from Northern Ireland to participate in debates on the region. However, it met with vociferous opposition from the Republic's main opposition parties Fine Gael and the Labour Party, and the plan was subsequently shelved. Unionists had also strongly opposed the proposal.
On Remembrance Day 2010 party leader Margaret Ritchie made history by becoming the first leader of a nationalist party to wear a poppy while attending a wreath-laying ceremony in Downpatrick, County Down. The poppy is worn on the lapel in the United Kingdom as a mark of respect and remembrance for fallen soldiers in the period around Remembrance Day and is controversial in Northern Ireland, as it is viewed by many as a political symbol representing support for the British Army. Because of this, it has long been the preserve of the unionist/loyalist community. Her actions drew praise from unionists.
On 27 July 2011, it was reported that Margaret Ritchie faced a leadership challenge from deputy leader Patsy McGlone. The Phoenix reported that only one MLA Alex Attwood was prepared to back her and that "she will be humiliated if she puts her leadership to a vote"
Alasdair McDonnell was confirmed as Ritchie's successor after the subsequent leadership election on 5 November 2011.
Upon its formation, the SDLP quickly established itself as the second largest party and the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland. This is a position which it largely held until the beginning of the 21st century. In 1998, it became the biggest party overall in terms of votes received, the first time this had been achieved by a nationalist party. In the 2001 general election and in the 2003 Assembly election, Sinn Féin won more seats and votes than the SDLP for the first time.
The retirement of John Hume was followed by a period when the party started slipping electorally. In the 2004 European elections, Hume stood down and the SDLP failed to retain the seat he had held since 1979, losing to Sinn Féin.
Some see the SDLP as first and foremost a party now representing Catholic middle-class interests, with voters concentrated in rural areas and the professional classes, rather than a vehicle for Irish nationalism. The SDLP reject this argument, pointing to their strong support in Derry and their victory in South Belfast in the 2005 election. Furthermore, in the lead up to the 2005 Westminster election, they published a document outlining their plans for a politically united Ireland. Their decline in Northern Ireland outside of two particular strongholds had led some to dub the party the "South Down and Londonderry Party".
The party claims that the 2005 Westminster elections — when they lost Newry and Armagh to Sinn Féin but Durkan comfortably held Hume's seat of Foyle whilst they also gained South Belfast with a slightly bigger share of the vote than in the 2003 assembly elections – shows that the decline caused by Sinn Féin's rejection of physical force republicanism has slowed and that their vote share demands they play a central role in any constitutional discussions. However the British Government remain focused on Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, as the mechanisms of government outlined in the Agreement mean that it is only necessary that a majority of assembly members from each community (which these two parties currently have) agree a way forward.
The party further declined in the 2011 Assembly elections. It lost two seats although it polled ahead of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) which won more seats. The decline continued in the 2016 Assembly election, as a further two seats were lost and the total number of votes received continued to drop.
In the 2017 Assembly election the party retained 12 seats and increased its seat share for the first time since 1998 due to a drop in the size of the assembly. This was followed by the 2017 general election where the SDLP lost all three seats and returned its worst ever vote share. In the 2019 European Election party leader Colum Eastwood ran, increasing his party's vote but failing to take a seat. In the general election later that year the party recaptured Belfast South and Foyle with the highest ever vote recorded for the party in both constituencies and managed to increase its vote across Northern Ireland to its highest in almost fifteen years for a general election. The two seats held by the party currently have the largest majorities of any constituencies in Northern Ireland.