I remember 1992. I was in the company of a senior SDLP politician and, as is the way of SDLP politicians, he was ignoring me because there was someone more important in the room. It was a few days before polling day for the Westminster elections and the senior SDLP man was explaining to the more important person that he should watch the returns in West Belfast – there was going to be a dramatic result.
He was right – Joe Hendron won the seat, defeating Gerry Adams. The senior SDLP man didn’t explain it to the important person, but Hendron was elected because a number of thousand unionist voters in the Shankill area voted for Hendron as the only available way to block Gerry Adams. There was much rejoicing among SDLP supporters. Five years later Adams won the seat back. It wasn’t clear if the unionist voters from the Shankill got sick voting for a taig or if Sinn Fein found new voters to come out for them.
Next week in South Down it’s expected (but by no means certain) that Maggie Ritchie, the SDLP leader will defeat Caitriona Ruane of Sinn Fein and take the seat for the SDLP. If she does so, the accepted belief is that she will do it with the help of several thousand normally-unionist voters in the constituency, who would see it as the only way to block Caitriona Ruane.
Fair enough, if a little temporary. It’s perfectly legitimate to go with your usual opponents. ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and all that. And it’s clear that Maggie Ritchie sees herself as closer to the unionist parties than she does to Sinn Fein. Which, given the attendance of the SDLP man Thomas Burns at a mid-east gig with the British Army, shouldn’t surprise us at all. But it does tell you something about the SDLP’s position on the constitutional question. Those who are staunchly unionist know that for the SDLP, the question of a re-united Ireland is really just a piece of window-dressing which occasionally they put on public display, more often consign to a small dusty box at the back of their shop.