Wedding bells at the conference

By Jude Collins

 

WHY did Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP, go to the Ulster Unionist Party’s conference last Saturday? “To show that he is well disposed towards the UUP” you might say. Mmm. But wouldn’t the UUP already know that? After all, they’ve been “working” in the same building on a daily basis, so it’d be reasonable to believe the UUP might have picked up the friendly vibes by now.

Maybe it was to show, not the UUP, but the electorate that the SDLP is a modern party, not the prisoner of the past’s apartheid, a party that believes in creating new relationships? Maybe. Except that it’s some time since the SDLP went into Opposition along with the UUP. Are people really that dense that they wouldn’t have noticed if Colum hadn’t made his trip to Shaw’s Bridge on Saturday?

Listening to the speech the SDLP leader made at the conference doesn’t get you far either. Colum declared that the Ulster Unionists and his party wanted to make Northern Ireland work. “The DUP and Sinn Féin have no such aspiration. They’re all guff and no government.”

Punchy line, that – “all guff and no government.” So good, you could be pardoned for thinking the hand of Mark Durkan may have been involved in drafting the speech. Mark used to have lines like that coming out his ears; but counter-intuitively, as they say, while Mark’s style was smooth and zingy, his substance tended to be a bit blurred.

The same applied to Colum’s s peech. The SDLP and the UUP want to make NI work? Um, that’s why we pay you every month, Colum.

In his speech, Mike Nesbitt emphasized how close the two parties had become: “Vote Colum and you get me; vote me and you get Colum”.

Wow. Radical or what? Unionists and nationalists working together – maybe even forming a government together some day. Right?

Umm, maybe stall the wedding a bit. Wasn’t there a point in recent UUP history when it was all about a graduated response, all about electoral pacts with the DUP? And would Danny Kennedy, deputy UUP leader, consider such electoral pacts a thing of the past?

“I don’t rule anything out and I don’t rule anything in.” In other words, there’s no way I’m going to tie my party to the SDLP and certainly not if it means we’re not going to rule out holding the DUP’s hand when the chips are down. The commentator Rick Wilford put it rather well: the UUP and the SDLP may be in bed together, but it’s definitely not a king-size, more twin beds really. The political chastity showed on Saturday when “God Save The Queen” was played on a giant screen, complete with giant Union flag. Colum was given a 10-second warning and he quit the building in advance. There’s such a thing as getting too friendly with the unionists.

So let’s recap. Colum goes to Mike’s bash and makes a speech. In it he accuses the DUP and Sinn Féin of “struggling to fabricate the illusion of progress”. Mike and Colum are agreed that just as the UUP and the SDLP were the parties which delivered the Good Friday Agreement, they’ll likewise deliver on health, education, employment, the lot.

When might this happen? 2020, maybe 2021. Have the UUP and the SDLP got a coherent set of alternative policies worked out and costed, in direct challenge to the clue-less DUP and Sinn Féin? Um, no. Even if the UUP and the SDLP were the two main parties in 2021, the DUP and SF still wouldn’t have gone away, they’d still have enough seats to gain a few places in the Executive. Which means that even if Mike and Colum were to put their heads together and come up with a carefully-planned and well-articulate set of alternative policies, an Executive that contained Sinn Féin and the DUP would soon cool their porridge.

Will I tell you what I think? The SDLP-UUP love-in is strictly for (i) the optics and (ii) the birds.
The party that worked electorally to get the maximum number of unionist seats – yes, Virginia, the UUP – is not going to work with the SDLP in any enterprise that loses unionism seats. And Colum isn’t going to be seen getting overly chummy with Mike, otherwise “our Irish nationalism”, as Colum put it, would become more than a little suspect. And that would mean the SDLP could kiss goodbye to holding their present seats, let alone increasing their number.

Both the SDLP and the UUP know that if their embrace becomes too long-lasting and/or passionate, they’re both likely to end up together in the Gone Away Party (GAP), with their theme song the tear-inducing “I Believe in Yesterday”.

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