Social Democratic and Labour Party

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Social Democratic and Labour Party
Abbreviation SDLP
Founder Gerry Fitt
John Hume
Paddy Devlin
Seamus Mallon
Austin Currie
Leader Colum Eastwood MLA
Deputy Leader Fearghal McKinney MLA
Chairperson Ronan McCay
General Secretary Gerry Cosgrove
Founded 1970
Headquarters 121 Ormeau Road
Belfast, BT7 1SH,
County Antrim,
Northern Ireland
Youth wing SDLP Youth
Women's wing SDLP Women's Group
Ideology Social democracy[1]
Irish nationalism[2]
Political position Centre-left[3][4]
European affiliation Party of European Socialists
International affiliation Socialist International
Colours Green, Red, Yellow
House of Commons
(NI Seats)
3 / 18
House of Lords
0 / 802
European Parliament
(NI seats)
0 / 3
NI Assembly
14 / 108
NI Local Councils
66 / 462
Politics of Northern Ireland
Political parties

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP; Irish: Páirtí Sóisialta Daonlathach an Lucht Oibre) is a social-democratic[3][5][6] and Irish nationalist[6][7][8] political party in Northern Ireland. The SDLP currently has three MPs in the House of Commons, and 14 MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The SDLP party platform advocates Irish unification, 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 left-wing 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 SDLP has fraternal links with other European social-democratic parties, including the Irish Labour Party and British Labour Party (neither of which contest elections in Northern Ireland), and is affiliated to the Socialist International and Party of European Socialists.

Foundation and early history

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),[9] 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, and it was to be 25 years before the party sat in government again.


There is a debate over the intentions of the party's founders, with some now claiming that the aim was to provide a political movement to unite constitutional nationalists who opposed the paramilitary campaign of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and wished to campaign for civil rights for Catholics and a united Ireland by peaceful, constitutional means. However, others argue that, as the name implies, the emphasis was originally on creating a social-democratic party rather than a nationalist party. This debate between social democracy and nationalism was to persist for the first decade of the party's existence. Founder and first leader Gerry Fitt — a former leader of the explicitly socialist Republican Labour Party – would later claim that it was the party's decision to demand a Council of Ireland as part of the Sunningdale Agreement that signified the point at which the party adopted a clear nationalist agenda. He would later leave the party in 1979, claiming that it was no longer the party it was intended to be.

However the party itself argues that its earliest publications show they have remained consistent in their search for a way out of an impasse in Northern Ireland that satisfies nationalist desires and calms unionist fears. The SDLP were the first to advocate the so-called principle of consent — recognising that fundamental changes in Northern Ireland's constitutional status could only come with the agreement of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. However, the SDLP has always been clear that this should not mean that anybody should have a veto on change or equality.

For most of its existence Sinn Féin ridiculed the principle of consent. However, they grudgingly agreed to it when signing up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The principle of consent, also widely accepted by unionists, was explicitly endorsed by a large majority of Irish people in referendums (held on the same day) that endorsed the agreement.

Whilst anxious to achieve devolved government in Northern Ireland (which the British Government had prorogued in 1972), the SDLP were also insistent on what was then known as the Irish dimension — in other words a defined constitutional role for the Republic in northern affairs. This issue led to Gerry Fitt's decision to leave in 1979. Mr Fitt had agreed to enter into talks with Humphrey Atkins, the Secretary of State, which excluded an Irish dimension but was then rebuffed by his party conference.

John Hume was an advocate of a joint authority approach where both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom would exercise political power. This was a central idea of the New Ireland Forum which brought together mainstream Irish parties in the 1980s. However, this was rejected out-of-hand by Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, in a speech that became known as "out, out, out" because she dismissed every proposal of the forum by saying "that is out".

The horrified reaction of the Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to this speech and the electoral success of Sinn Féin following the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike shocked the Thatcher Government and they were receptive to FitzGerald's lobbying on behalf of the SDLP which eventually led in 1985 to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which was opposed by both unionists and republicans. Republicans were concerned that the agreement did not go far enough. Unionists staged a demonstration of some 200,000 people in Belfast city centre.

While the SDLP's opponents claimed the party had become "post-nationalist" (following a speech where John Hume referred to "an increasingly post-nationalist Europe") after the Good Friday Agreement, Mark Durkan has recently described the party as republican. Durkan often emphasises to unionists that the protections and constitutional mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement would remain in the united Ireland that the SDLP seeks.

The Good Friday Agreement and return to government

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.

Electoral performance

The SDLP was the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland from the time of its foundation until the beginning of the 21st century. In 1998, it became the biggest party overall in terms of votes received, the first (as so far, only) 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"[10]

Northern Ireland election seats 1997-2015.svg

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 SDLP endorsed and actively supported the replacement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a force which many nationalists opposed, with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

In the 2009 European elections the party fielded Alban Maginness as their candidate and failed to gain a seat with 78,489 first preference votes.[11]

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.

Party Leader Candidates Seats Change from 2007
1st Pref Votes 1st Pref % Change from 2007

Executive seats
SDLP Margaret Ritchie 28 14 −2 94,286 13.9 −1.0 1

Possible merger

There had been a debate in the party on the prospects of amalgamation with Fianna Fáil,[12] then governing party of the Republic of Ireland, while the possibility of merger with the Irish Labour Party or even Fine Gael have been speculated about by others[citation needed]. Little came of this speculation and former party leader, Margaret Ritchie, rejected the idea. Speaking at the 2010 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."[13] Since his election as Fianna Fáil Leader in January 2011, Micheál Martin has also repeatedly dismissed the possibility of a merger or electoral alliance with the SDLP.

Westminster Parliament

With the collapse of the Ulster Unionist Party in the 2005 UK general election and Sinn Féin's continual abstention from Westminster, the SDLP is once more the second largest parliamentary grouping from Northern Ireland at Westminster. The SDLP sees this as a major opportunity to become the voice of Irish Nationalism in Westminster and to provide effective opposition to the much enlarged Democratic Unionist Party group. The SDLP is consequently paying more attention to the Westminster Parliament and working to strengthen its ties with the Parliamentary Labour Party, whose whip they informally accept. The SDLP has been a vocal opponent at Westminster of the proposal to extend detention without trial to 42 days and previously opposed measures to extend detention to 90 days and 28 days. SDLP MP and former leader Mark Durkan recently tabled an Early Day Motion on cluster munitions which gained cross-party support and was quickly followed by a decision by the UK government to support a ban.

Proposed Dáil participation

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 Labour, and the plan was subsequently shelved.[14] Unionists had also strongly opposed the proposal.

Remembrance Day 2010

On Remembrance Day 2010 party leader Margaret Ritchie made history by becoming the first leader of a nationalist party to wear a poppy. She attended the wreath-laying ceremony in Downpatrick. In Northern Ireland, the wearing of poppies is controversial. It is seen by many as a political symbol representing support for the British Army.[15] Because of this, it has long been the preserve of the unionist/loyalist community.[16] Her actions drew praise from unionists.[17][18][19]

Leadership challenge and election, 2011

On 27 July 2011 it was reported that Margaret Ritchie faced a leadership challenge from deputy leader Patsy McGlone.[20] 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"[21]

Alasdair McDonnell was confirmed as Ritchie's successor after the subsequent leadership election on 5 November 2011.[22]


Colum Eastwood MLA, leader of the SDLP since 2015

Party leader

Leader Period Constituency
Gerry Fitt 1970–1979 MP for Belfast Dock (1962–72)
MP for Belfast West (1966–83)
John Hume 1979–2001 MEP for Northern Ireland (1979–2004)
MP for Foyle (1983–2005)
MLA for Foyle (1998–2000)
Mark Durkan 2001–2010 MLA for Foyle (1998–2010)
MP for Foyle (from 2005)
Margaret Ritchie 2010–2011 MLA for South Down (2003–12)
MP for South Down (from 2010)
Alasdair McDonnell 2011–2015 MLA for Belfast South (1998–2015)
MP for Belfast South (from 2005)
Colum Eastwood 2015–present MLA for Foyle (from 2011)

Deputy leader

Leader Period Constituency
John Hume 1970–1979 MP for Foyle (1969–72)
MEP for Northern Ireland (1979-2004)
MP for Foyle (1983-2005)
MLA for Foyle (1998–2000)
Seamus Mallon 1979–2001 MP for Newry and Armagh (1986-2005)
MLA for Newry and Armagh (1998-2003)
Bríd Rodgers 2001–2004 MLA for Upper Bann (1998-2003)
Alasdair McDonnell 2004–2010 MLA for Belfast South (1998-2015)
MP for Belfast South (from 2005)
Patsy McGlone 2010–2011 MLA for Mid-Ulster (from 2003)
Dolores Kelly 2011–2015 MLA for Upper Bann (from 2003)
Fearghal McKinney 2015- MLA for Belfast South (from 2013)

Elected representatives


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Election results and governments

Northern Ireland Council Seats
Antrim and Newtownabbey
4 / 40
Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon
6 / 41
Belfast City
7 / 60
Causeway Coast and Glens
6 / 40
Derry and Strabane
10 / 40
Fermanagh and Omagh
8 / 40
Lisburn and Castlereagh
3 / 40
Mid and East Antrim
1 / 40
6 / 40
Newry, Mourne and Down
14 / 41
North Down and Ards
1 / 40

Devolved Legislature elections

Election Body First Preference Vote Vote % Seats Government
1973 1973 Assembly 159,773 22.1%
19 / 78
1975 Constitutional Convention 156,049 23.7%
17 / 78
1982 1982 Assembly 118,891 18.8%
14 / 78
1996 Forum 160,786 21.4%
21 / 110
1998 1st Assembly 177,963 22.0%
24 / 108
2003 2nd Assembly 117,547 17.0%
18 / 108
2007 3rd Assembly 105,164 15.2%
16 / 108
DUP–Sinn Féin–SDLP–UUP–Alliance
2011 4th Assembly 94,286 14.2%
14 / 108
DUP–Sinn Féin–UUP–SDLP–Alliance

Westminister elections

Election House of Commons Votes Vote % Seats Government
1974 (Feb) 46th 160,137 0.5% (in UK)
1 / 12
Labour Party
1974 (Oct) 47th 154,193 0.6% (in UK)
1 / 12
Labour Party
1979 48th 126,325 0.4% (in UK)
1 / 12
Conservative Party
1983 49th 137,012 0.4% (in UK)
1 / 17
Conservative Party
1987 50th 154,067 0.5% (in UK)
3 / 17
Conservative Party
1992 51st 184,445 0.5% (in UK)
4 / 17
Conservative Party
1997 52nd 190,814 17.9% (in NI)
0.6% (in UK)
3 / 18
Labour Party
2001 53rd 169,865 21.0% (in NI)
0.6% (in UK)
3 / 18
Labour Party
2005 54th 125,626 17.5% (in NI)
0.5% (in UK)
3 / 18
Labour Party
2010 55th 110,970 16.5% (in NI)
0.4% (in UK)
3 / 18
Conservative Party–Liberal Democrats
2015 56th 99,809 13.9% (in NI)
0.3% (in UK)
3 / 18
Conservative Party

Local Government elections

Election First Preference Vote Vote % Seats
1973 92,600 13.4%
82 / 517
1977 114,775 20.6%
113 / 526
1981 116,487 17.5%
104 / 526
1985 113,967 17.8%
102 / 565
1989 129,557 21.0%
121 / 565
1993 136,760 22.0%
127 / 582
1997 130,387 21.0%
120 / 575
2001 153,424 19.0%
117 / 582
2005 121,991 17.4%
101 / 582
2011 99,325 15.0%
87 / 583
2014 85,237 13.6%
66 / 462

European elections

Election First Preference Vote Vote % Seats
1979 140,622 25.5%
1 / 3
1984 151,399 22.1%
1 / 3
1989 136,335 25.0%
1 / 3
1994 161,992 28.9%
1 / 3
1999 190,731 28.1%
1 / 3
2004 87,559 15.9%
0 / 3
2009 78,489 16.1%
0 / 3
2014 81,594 13.0%
0 / 3

See also


  1. Parties and Elections in Europe: The database about parliamentary elections and political parties in Europe, by Wolfram Nordsieck
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  10. Newton Emerson
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  14. See Irish Echo article.
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  17. "SDLP Leader Ritchie to wear Poppy", BBC News
  18. "Decision to wear poppy difficult for SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie", The Belfast Telegraph
  19. "Ritchie's Poppy Move 'Is a major breakthrough'" The Newsletter
  20. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  21. "Bird's Eye View Patsy McGlone's Leadership Strike", The Phoenix Magazine, August 12 - 25th 2011, pg 8
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External links

  • SDLP (official website)

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