Opinion: SDLP must sense changing winds of political fortune

In a week when Gordon Brown was alleged to have said to Tony Blair: "I would not believe a word you say to me", Bertie echoed the same sentiments to Gerry Adams. The continued denial by the republican movement of involvement in the Northern Bank heist is typical of the choreography and bare faced cheek we expect from Sinn Féin – the Arms and Armani party.

Around Newry we once joked that the one time colleagues of Sinn Féin - the local Stickies - invented ATM's long before the banks made "hole in the wall money" available to the rest of the public. Thirty years on, the Provos don't mess about with raids on small rural bank branches nor do they enter by the back door. Firmly ensconced at the front of the bus (or van), they go straight to bank HQ.

So experienced are the Shinners at playing the victim that they carry its mantle like Padre Pio carries the stigmata. Not that any of this will bother too many of their supporters as banks are often regarded as fair game.

However, there are signs that unfettered republican criminality may be bothering others, who at one time were prepared to offer complete absolution to the republican leadership. Even those who were paving the way for Adams route map to the Áras are joining the ranks of non-believers.

There are rumours that recent events may even improve blood circulation in the SDLP with the cannier party lions showing more heart than the SDLP cubs in scenting the chance of a political kill. But is there an opportunity for the SDLP amidst the woes of Sinn Féin?

Well frankly, yes. But, as others have pointed out, if any party can let that opportunity slip from its grasp, it is the SDLP. To gain momentum, SDLP has to stop fretting about others and start concentrating on its own survival. Inclusiveness may be the by-word for the Hume driven Peace Process but even he now appears to believe it is time for some ground rules.

Accusations that the SDLP would somehow be abandoning the concept of 'inclusiveness' by making sure that the wider nationalist community don't lose out to DUP dominance because of Sinn Féin's own goal, simply do not stand up to scrutiny or the party's track record.

Surely when Seamus Mallon resigned from the Executive, it was to ensure that the integrity of the Agreement was not undermined by actions of non-conforming unionists? Are non-conforming republicans to be afforded any less integrity by the architects of the Good Friday Agreement?

Thanks to the official British and Irish policy of propping up, not only Trimble but Adams, the SDLP in the Executive was denied the opportunity to put that integrity to the test. The governments indulging of the prodigal sons in the UUP, Sinn Féin and latterly the DUP, has backfired. The SDLP, who was taken for granted, now owe nothing to the governments or even less to any of other political party.

Thankfully everything changes in politics and leaders. Even those as affable as Bertie soon lose patience with Gerry and the Peacemakers, when the scale of republican criminal activity is so overt that the Kray twins start looking like altar boys.

More importantly, public opinion seems to support the Taoiseach in his assertion that there is no place for this type of duplicity in modern Ireland and therein is the space for considerable political cover and manoeuvrability for the SDLP. If it hesitates to use this opportunity, it may pay a heavy electoral price. At the moment, the SDLP is in tune with the broad nationalist consensus on the island of Ireland.

There is little to lose at this stage of the political game and a decisive leadership should seize on law and order (or what for many communities under the cosh of paramilitary gangsterism as a lack of law and much disorder) as an issue. If the SDLP believe it has given the lead on the policing issue, then it should be selling the practical not political outcomes of that leadership.

The political pendulum has swung back towards safe SDLP territory and its core audiences. This time around, it needs to give those audiences a reason to vote. The centre of political gravity for the SDLP is never stronger than when it is strongly articulating the issues concerning mainstream nationalist opinion.

Sinn Féin has become brazen if not arrogant over the past number of years and, to paraphrase AE Russell, perhaps delirious on their recent electoral successes they "may also ensure their own damnation by their victory".

It is defining moment for the SDLP. The winds of political fortune have changed and its time to get the sails up.

Tom Kelly is a former vice chairman of the SDLP. He is Chief Executive of Stakeholder Communications Group,