A LEADING liberal unionist MLA has accused the SDLP of becoming so close to Sinn Fein that it has destroyed the centre ground of politics.
In a stinging attack on moderate nationalism, former UUP deputy leader John McCallister said that Alasdair McDonnell’s party had in recent months retreated behind “tribal barricades” by supporting republicans on a series of deeply controversial issues.
Writing in Friday’s News Letter, the South Down MLA says that the party which once jointly led the Stormont Executive with the UUP has “made peace with tribal politics”.
In recent months the SDLP has voted to free the IRA would-be murderer of DUP councillor Sammy Brush, supported naming a children’s play park after a terrorist and sided with Sinn Fein in the Executive to veto the extension of an FBI-style National Crime Agency to Northern Ireland.
Although other unionists have criticised the SDLP’s apparent drift into the orbit of Sinn Fein, Mr McCallister’s sharp criticism of the party is notable because he has good relations with the SDLP, and he has credibility with many nationalists since has shown his willingness to criticise fellow unionists who have in his view abandoned attempts to reach across the communal divide.
has good relations with the SDLP, and he has credibility with many nationalists since he has shown his willingness to criticise fellow unionists who have in his view abandoned attempts to reach across the communal divide.
Last year the South Down MLA addressed the SDLP’s youth conference and he has advocated the UUP joining the SDLP in a cross-community Opposition to the Executive.
Writing in today’s News Letter, he says of the SDLP’s professed vision of reaching out to unionists: “Centre-ground, moderate unionists can take no pleasure in the fact that this vision has not come to pass.
“Rather than being a standard-bearer for civic, moderate nationalism, the SDLP has retreated behind the tribal barricades.
“It is, of course, understandable. The temptation for both unionism and nationalism has been the same: forsake moderate, pluralist politics and go hunting for votes in deep orange or deep green territory.
“As this has happened, the hope for a shared future has collapsed and our politics has retreated behind the old sectarian barriers.”
Mr McCallister has been similarly critical of what he sees as the UUP’s increasing closeness to the DUP, and he quit the party in February after it agreed to a unionist unity candidate in the Mid Ulster by-election.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has dismissed that criticism, insisting that he is not leading his party towards a merger with the DUP.
Mr McCallister said: “Moderate unionism needs to be partnered by a moderate nationalism if our society is to have an authentic alternative to tribal politics promoted by the Sinn Fein and DUP blocs.”
Mr McCallister — who along with fellow former UUP MLA Basil McCrea is planning to launch a new liberal unionist party — urged the SDLP to accept the constitutional reality of Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.
He added: “Commentators have observed that the flags dispute has provoked considerable debate within unionism and it has certainly highlighted the need for a stronger and more consistent moderate, civic unionist voice.
“A similar debate is needed within nationalism in general and the SDLP in particular. It is my hope that progressive voices within the SDLP will start such a debate.”