SDLP: Our progressive vision of an all-island, high tech economy

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie discusses her plans for the future of the party and progressive politics in Northern Ireland ahead of the 2011 Assembly elections.

Margaret Ritchie MP MLA is the leader of the SDLP; this article was written before the current Northern Ireland water crisis

Nowhere has the term ‘progress’ been more relevant than in the North of Ireland and we need only look to our very recent history to see just how far we have travelled. However, we should not think of progressivism as being something inherently new as I am the direct political descendent of a long line of nationalist politicians from O’Connell and Parnell to our own John Hume, who were progressive before it was popular to be labelled as such.

At a time when the phrase progressive is bandied about across the political spectrum we must be careful that it does not lose all meaning and recognise that truly progressive politics – the driving force behind social change and peace on the island – faces serious challenges as we head towards the Assembly elections in May.

We must ensure that in the wake of the cuts to the Assembly budget that progressive politics does not take a back seat to the sectarian politics that so blighted the past.

Given the current circumstances our highest priority going in to the next election must be the economy. It is critical that such substantive issues are at the centre of the 2011 election campaign rather than tribal posturing over roles in the Executive.

In stark contrast to our opponents, our party’s progressive nationalism manifests itself in our outlook on the economy – unlike others we have never been scared to talk about the economy. We want to see growth, job creation, and restore the entrepreneurial spirit that our people have shown in the past and will do again.

We see this as part of an all-island, high tech, high value-added economy. But in growing our private sector we must also protect our public services which are increasingly coming under threat from the terrible decisions made by the coalition government in Westminster and by the DUP and Sinn Fein in the Executive. We want to protect vital frontline services and vulnerable households while stimulating the economy with a focus on job creation.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have been afraid to take the difficult decisions necessary and completely failed to respond to the economic downturn. In contrast we have just launched our own £4bn budget plan to protect vital public services, create jobs and remove the fear of unemployment.

The SDLP believes that we should not settle for the substantially reduced budget imposed by the recent Comprehensive Spending Review. Here in the North we can do more than simply allocate a much reduced budget. As we move into 2011 through a combination of efficiency savings, new revenue streams and generation of capital receipts, our proposals narrow the budget shortfall and give us additional resources we can spend where it is most needed.

As a social democratic party we want to see all of the sectoral interests in society – government, business, trade unions, the community and voluntary sector, and wider civic society – entering into a contract on negotiated economic and social outcomes. The necessary changes within our public sector, including pay restraint and a reassessment of senior salaries, will have consequences for the relationship between politicians and public sector workers.

We can see clearly from recent events in England the damage that is done and the social upheaval that is caused when politicians are seen as riding roughshod over the people they are elected to represent. Therefore we believe that it is vital that any changes must be conducted with care and cannot be something that is simply forced upon the public who are left to suffer the consequences.

This approach to the economy is an extension of our party’s fundamental belief in inclusion rather than division. It is certain that further division in our society will bring us no closer to the united Ireland we are ultimately striving for. Unlike Sinn Fein, the SDLP are a democratically controlled party that believe in a completely non-sectarian progressive nationalism.

As I said at our recent party conference:

“Our opponents are not progressive. They are chained to the past, resentful in the present and offer little hope for the future.”

By contrast our fundamental instinct is to look forward to the 2011 Assembly election with hope and optimism – and to progress on a path that allows everyone to move on.

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15 Responses to “SDLP: Our progressive vision of an all-island, high tech economy”

  1. SDLP

    RT @leftfootfwd: SDLP: Our progressive vision of an all-island, high tech economy: by @MargaretRitchie

  2. Trakgalvis

    RT @leftfootfwd: SDLP: Our progressive vision of an all-island, high tech economy: by @MargaretRitchie

  3. Yssel & Son's

    SDLP: Our progressive vision of an all-island, high tech economy

  4. Mikell

    High-tech, high value added, GDP, GNP, High Growth Levels, FDI, Blah Blah Blah. I went to University and got a High-tech implant and now I know everything about nothing and nothing about everything and I’ve got a degree and a picture of Bill Gates and I think I’m Jewish and I’d fall over meself to be nice to a foreigner, Blah ,blah, blah. Oh! and I swear allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Follow me, be like me and everything will be great. We’ll all be rollin’ in it.

  5. Sam Ellis

    RT @leftfootfwd: SDLP: Our progressive vision of an all-island, high tech economy: by @MargaretRitchie

  6. SlashedUK

    RT @leftfootfwd: SDLP: Our progressive vision of an all-island, high tech economy: by @MargaretRitchie

  7. Patrick Devlin

    Coming from ‘the North’ I began to read this article with interest and after reading it I’m none the wiser! What is a ‘high tech’ economy? Surely Ireland is best placed to grow an economy on what it does best, food. Farming, sustainable, economical and enviro friendly farming. A good clean food processing sector and exports with profits going directly to the people. Build your high tech economy then; on this solid foundation. We in Ireland need to stop living in a pipe dream there is no quick fix to the state control economy we live under; and you in the SDLP need more than this (above)if you are to survive. Each utterance from your party has the tagline ‘we’re not the shinners’. You may be a descendent of John Hume, but your the ‘tiny tim’ of the family. Voters want drive and passion, things lacking in the party as evidenced by this article.

  8. Éoin Clarke


    There is quite a lot to quibble with in that short piece, which is unfortunate since I wish your efforts all the very best…

    If one wishes to be progressive, it is unhealthy and uniwse to be drawing historical paralells with past leaders as far back as 190 years ago. As an Irishman permit me to say so, but it is a very tired and unhelpful mode of generating a party brand, since inevitably you come into competition with others who claim the same lineage. For example, did you know that Daniel O’Connell was opposed to Trade Unions? Did you know he abhorred Socialism? Be careful to claim the mantle of such people… I could go further and point out his anti-feminist stance on many issues but I will not bore others…

    More importantly, regarding the detail of the SDLP proposals to deal with the looming cuts, I applaud you for being fairly constructive and imaginative in trying to generate your own ideas. You should point out to your UK readers your party’s longstanding support for a low tax economy. It is wrong to score points by saying other parties have not come up with their own solutions to the cuts. As you well know other parties have detailed some interesting taxation ideas to help offset some of the cuts. [taxing mobile phone masts for example]

    Other that this, a reasonable piece. Good luck 🙂

  9. Paul Hagan

    Sorry to use a long word but there is nothing progressive about your kind or any other kind of ethnonationailsm, or as we say in “the North of Ireland” tribalism. The SDLP is, and remains, a party who expresses the hopes and dreams of only one section of the community in the province, only one of its tribes, and ultimatley part of the secterian architecture in Ulster. Not being Sinn Fein might shed you some of heavier historical baggage but that doesn’t make you progressive. Margaret Ritchie said in the run-up last general election that the SDLP would ‘work with any party’ and not show in favour in deciding who to form a coalition with should her MPs be called-on in a hung parlaiment, be it Tory, Labour or Lib Dem. Surely this must now end the fiction that the SDLP are anything like a sister party of Labour and question thier alignment with Irish Labour and the Party of European Socialists. Perhaps progressives, lefties and liberals in Northern Ireland should take this as an opportunity to build a left-wing anti-secterain alternative to the politics of the past. If the SDLP had not been so eclipsed by Sinn Fein in the contest for the nationalist/Catholic vote over the past decade then it would be them making the cuts that Margaret Ritchie is decrying here.

    This might be an appropriate point to ass that I find it continually frustrating how politicians of every shade (and I mean every shade) bandy the word ‘progressive’ around. Everyone claims to be ‘progressive’ these days – and of course they would, no politician in their right mind would stand up and say “on the whole folks -I’m not in favour of Progress” to see Irish nationalists (or any ethno-nationalist group) label their side progressive (and by implication suggest the other is not) really shows that word is in serious danger of losing all meaning. To defend her boats of being uniquely progressive Margaret Ritchie claims:
    “Our opponents are not progressive. They are chained to the past” Is that all you can offer Margaret in your claim to being progressive? -not being “chained to the past”? Then why did you open this article with a reference to 19th century Irish nationalist heroes Daniel O’Connel and Parnell? Hardly the kind of inclusive future you talk about. Hardly Progressive, though you are still better than the Shinners.

    Historically the Northern Ireland party using the word ‘progressive’ was the militantly-unionist Vanguard party in 1970s, which suggesting one should always be careful when ascribing that label. Perhaps it should be linked to the promulgation of an anti-secterian agenda which seeks not the furtherment of one side over the other.

  10. Éoin Clarke


    In fairness to the SDLP, and I am no fan, they were passionate about peace, and justice since their birth. I find the SDLP almost centrist, and I often wonder about their red posturings, but they still deserve respect for the role they continue to play in ensuring peace.

  11. Liathain

    Where the SDLP lie on the political spectrum is an interesting question and one that no doubt, would cause some discussion within the SDLP itself.

    I don’t see anything wrong in drawing a link to the past (although I’m not a fan of O’Connell either) and to be fair even in New Labour they still tipped the cap to Nye Bevan (Labour in Dublin are never too far away from mentioning Connolly, in fact I can’t think of a party bar the Greens who don’t do some sort of lineage claims). And to be fair Hume is impressive – Nobel prize winner, recently voted greatest Irish person etc etc. It’s hard to think of someone comparable in either mainstream British/Irish politics who would be in with a realistic chance to equal these commendations (and while still alive).

    The SDLP certainly use the language of the centrist social democrat and don’t engage in the Red Flag singing, comrade greeting shibboleth of other Labour parties (rather the SDLP are fond of the ‘we shall overcome, I have a dream’ era of politics with its emphasis on peaceful organisation and human rights). But the difference in these traditions can in brief be explained away by the difference in genesis.

    Away from these superficial trappings it’s in policies that the difference in position between the 3 PES parties on the British Islands become apparent.

    The easiest comparison to make is looking at votes in the HoC. Here the SDLP and New Labour have taken a markedly different line on issues such of detention limits, the Iraq War and human rights. In provision and ownership of public services the parties again diverge, as in welfare and European integration.

    Lowering Corporation Tax is a bit of a straw man if it only results in lowering the amount in the block grant.

    Looking back at the North/Northern Ireland/the province/Ulster/our wee country/Norn Iron/Occupied six (etc etc ad infinitum) the challenges faced do differ then the UK (or ROI).
    Community Cohesion is still a very live issue (as in parts of Scotland and increasingly England), economic development is still reliant on decisions outside of local control and the ‘one for us one for them’ nature of the Assembly and Councils nowhere near approaches good governance.

    Still there are reasons to be cheerful.

    As Patrick mentioned the island of Ireland has long had agriculture as a key basis of the economy. Of course it’s open to problems such as foot and mouth, mad cow disease and generally crap weather but it should still play a part. But it can’t be everything – you need a diverse economy to give some aspect of stability (as our friends to the south recently found out).

    On the high tech stuff just off the top of my head Project Kelvin has a great potential to offer NI a unique advantage over our neighbours to the south and east and despite our predilection to bemoaning success there has been a good numbers of local start ups in this area that have proved resilient to the whole recession thing. Heavy engineering is still in Belfast (albeit much diminished from the glorified days of the East Belfast slums) and if you get the early boat from Belfast to Stranraer you can see wind turbine components’ being sailed to wherever they go.

    Social Partnership is an interesting idea but the outcome is in the implementation. The Civic Forum suffered from a lack of teeth but as an idea it was not without merit.

    The general problem in NI is that politics for so long had nowt to do with people and all to do with posturing. Turning that about is the opportunity for the SDLP

  12. Liathain

    Sorry Paul missed your post there for some reason.

    The SDLP are nationalists that’s fair enough, but ethno-nationalists? You’re putting the SDLP in with the likes of the BNP or Terreblanches AWB? I’m sure I don’t remember any SDLP leader coming out with the equivalent of ‘British Jobs for British workers’

    “The SDLP is, and remains, a party who expresses the hopes and dreams of only one section of the community in the province, only one of its tribes, and ultimatley part of the secterian architecture in Ulster. Not being Sinn Fein might shed you some of heavier historical baggage”

    Might shed the baggage? What baggage? You mean like killing people? Planting bombs? Inciting riots and house burning and the like? Nope, sorry the SDLP (and the Greens and Alliance to be fair) can clearly say they have never had any links to paramilitaries or proto-paramilitaries (SF/PIRA, UUP/Vanguard DUP/UR et al). Not only that the SDLP never uttered anything but condemnation for anyone who thought violence should be used to achieve political progress.

    “Margaret Ritchie said in the run-up last general election that the SDLP would ‘work with any party’“
    You couldn’t link to that could you? I know she said it at various times about the government in the RoI (dealing with the tri-partite structures and negotiations) but I don’t remember it about the Tories.

    “Perhaps progressives, lefties and liberals in Northern Ireland should take this as an opportunity to build a left-wing anti-secterain alternative to the politics of the past. If the SDLP had not been so eclipsed by Sinn Fein in the contest for the nationalist/Catholic vote over the past decade then it would be them making the cuts that Margaret Ritchie is decrying here.”

    Hypothetical politics is great fun isn’t it? Not particularly useful in any way, shape or form but entertaining all the same. Saying that if I was a liberal I’d join the Lib Dem’s sister party the Alliance (or Fianna Fail as they’re all members of the ALDE group – heh).

    “This might be an appropriate point to ass that I find it continually frustrating how politicians of every shade (and I mean every shade) bandy the word ‘progressive’ around. …-not being “chained to the past”? Then why did you open this article with a reference to 19th century Irish nationalist heroes Daniel O’Connel and Parnell? Hardly the kind of inclusive future you talk about….
    Historically the Northern Ireland party using the word ‘progressive’ was the militantly-unionist Vanguard party in 1970s…”

    I agree about the over usage of the word ‘progressive’ (and ‘change’ and ‘delivering’ and all the rest of those horrible buzzwords) but as I mentioned before there is nothing inherently wrong in drawing links to the past – if only so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Drawing links serves to show a degree of continuity and shows what has been done and what may be done again. Acknowledging the past is different than living in it, it’s all about what ends you seek to serve by doing so (by the by today is the anniversary of the Reavey killings and tomorrow the Kingsmill Massacre, I’d say it’s important to remember these things so we can say ‘never again’ but that’s just my humble peace loving nature).

    As a social democrat myself I’m not sure of which sides you’re referring to? Social Democracy isn’t a zero sum game, for someone to gain another does not have to lose. It’s this type of us and them thinking that needs to be exorcised from NI politics.

    On Vanguard being progressive, I would have thought that the Progressive Unionist Party would have warranted a mention here. Ok so their sole MLA Dawn Purvis left after their armed wing (the UVF) killed Bobby Moffet last year (but not oddly enough after the dozen or so other murders committed since she joined the party – including a 15 year old boy stabbed to death as he went to buy a bag of chips – look it, there’s me going to the past again).

    Here’s an interesting question – would Dawn Purvis be welcome in this new alignment you’re describing – the progressive (there’s that meaningless word again) liberal(?) and lefty (trots and tankies included?) alliance?
    Or what about Lady Silvia Hermon MP? Allow me a moment to expand here. If we’re honest we can take UK Unionism and Irish Nationalism as two forms of nationalist belief (one looking to London the other to Dublin). Your logic dictates that an Irish Nationalist is part of the ‘sectarian architecture’ because they only represent people who identify as Irish nationalists – the counter argument should hold, so the two impressive ladies I mentioned above are part of that sectarian architecture as well because they both identify (and were elected as) unionists.

    Am I right?

    PS: what ‘kind’ is Margaret Ritchie?

  13. Paul Hagan

    Liathain, thanks for reading and weighing-in with your contribution, forgive my delay in responding. I think you’ve mis-interpreted a few of my points. The SDLP as I said don’t have the historical baggage that Sinn Fein have of what in your words was “killing people, Planting bombs, Inciting riots and house burning and the like”. I also think you have confused ‘ethnonationalism’ with ‘racial nationalism’ which the two examples you listed suggested you were thinking of. The conflicts of the Balkans in the 1990s are often referred to as ‘ethnic’ strife, though not racial, I think it’s an appropraite word to use in NI/Nor’n Ir’n/6 counties/Thuasceart Eireann etc, at any rate it’s hardly what one would term ‘progressive’, although we both agree that’s a problematic word in itself.

    We all know and can recite what we’re often told, that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, which is certainly worth remembering in this context, especially when thinking about the anniversaries that you mentioned. But you have to remember that history, or different versions of it, is still a hotly contested animating force in Ulster/North of Ireland/Our wee Country. The competing narratives of Irish history, Republican, Unionist, Nationalist whatever, retain their power in contemporary politics and society (think of an orange walk). Margaret Ricthie’s use of Parnell and O’Connell is an example of this. By placing her and her party in this historical nationalist context she’s reminding the Catholic/Nationalist community of who they are and what their path is. She was saying ‘I’m one of our kind’ (answer to your PS) This is warm and comforting to that side of the community, but it is alienating and offensive to the other side and the rest of us who don’t subscribe to their version of history. This brings me to your very interesting question at the end. The PUP, provide a good example of how the word ‘progressive’ can be misued as no-one could think that the secterian gunmen and gangsters of the UVF had anything progressive to offer. However they claim to offer a “loyalism that is based on the principles of the Solemn League and Covenant…committed to seeking the material (social & economic) well being of the people…upholding the principles of civil and religious liberty for all citizens and..the principles of equal citizenship” The words sound progressive enough however we all know about the PUP’s baggage and what the UVF stands for, the use of the 1912 Solemn League is hardly going to make people turn around and think they must actually be something much better. It is an attempt to construct a historical narrative to appeal those who may be inclined to vote for them. It’s really quite a pity to see Margaret Ritchie use the examples she did, when one considers as you put it the SDLP are fond of the ‘we shall overcome, I have a dream’ era of politics with its emphasis on peaceful organisation and human rights.

    It is regrettable that politicians from NI, who have articulated a more progressive sounding agenda or had a voting record which may suggest so (like the two examples you gave) haven’t yet ditched the ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ labels. With the current postGood Friday agreement system and its secterian architecture, which the SDLP still supports, it may be seen as beneficial, although it may be Lady Sylvia did not use the word ‘unionist’ in her election campaign.

    When Margaret Ritchie launched the SDLP 2010 election manifesto
    ( saying she would work with all parties, having no regard for supposed links to any kind of more progressive-looking government one could hardly blame her as it’s what pretty much the usual attitude of the other parties except for the UUP who in 2010 had another go at trying to be the local tories. Naomi Long doesnt take the Lib Dem whip in the HoC-and you can hardly blame her in the circumstances.

    As a social-democrat or leftie myself (neither tankie nor trot) NI needs a little less of what you called ‘zero sum politics’ funnily enough that sounds like an old SDLP election slogan “when the SDLP win we all win” if I’m not mistaken. Although I can’t see any of that emerging from the tribal parties (SDLP included) though such parties may well endure for decades to come-but saying that does sound like hypothetical politics, doesn’t it?

  14. eurosocialist

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who utters a groan of frustration whenever I hear Margaret Ritchie talk about “progressive nationalism.” I understand the political history of the SDLP and the current electoral challenges that it faces but the party cannot compete with SF in the tribal politics game. Face it, an organisation that was prepared to wage an ugly and squalid sectarian war for their version of nationalism is going to beat a social democratic party to the tribal punch every time. I understand the electoral difficulties of letting go of a nationalist identity, but continuing to cling to it condemns the SDLP to a runner-up role in NI politics … a Northern Fine Gael,if you will.

    However, there are other options available, at least in creating a political space in which people from across the mainstream Left in NI might come together for debate and joint campaigning. Some of the commentators above have already mentioned the Party of European Socialists (PES). This is the European party to which the SDLP and the Irish and British Labour Parties are affiliated. Indeed, all three of these parties organise in NI, the SDLP being the only one that stands candidates, and their local members are automatically members of the PES, i.e. are already members of the same European political party.

    The advantage of the PES is that it has no nationalist or unionist identity or agenda. Indeed, which flag flies on which public buildings is a matter of indifference to the PES. But the PES is also more than just what happens in Brussels. As so many of the decisions taken at the EU level have a local impact, the PES has a meaningful role in policy and campaigning areas that cover economic and social policy, culture and ecology, human rights and gender equality at the natonal and regional level.

    SO, my question is, especially for those alienated by nationalist politics (whether green or orange), is it possible for PES members in the North to meet and work together as PES activists, free of constitutional/tribal issues and focussed instead on the concerns and aspirations that matter to people in Belfast or Derry every bit as much as to people in Berlin or Dijon?

    There are many others outside of our political family, but firmly in the Left mainstream in NI, who could also be attracted to such an initiative. I’m thinking here of those many people in the TUs and other civil society groups and campaigns who have no Left political pary with which they can identity in NI as well as (newly-)independent Left politicians like Dawn Purvis.

    It is clearly not possible to expect the SDLP to foreswear nationalism. It is part of that party’s DNA and to do so now would fatally reduce the role of the SDLP in NI politics. However, that does not mean that it will always need to be that way. But first of all, people have to meet and work together; to get used to relying on each other and working to a common purpose. By building political relationships, identity and ideas within a space which is specifically European and socialist/social democratic it might be possible to develop a new approach to NI politics that leaves the dreary discourse of ethno-nationalism and its flag-wavers behind.

  15. Liathain

    Paul, sorry for being tardy myself. Not wishing to get into a hair splitting situation I’ll chalk up some of the points as a misunderstanding on my behalf. I guess the root of the debate I’m (poorly) trying to make is the question of whether nationalism of any hue can sit within the left. I really don’t have an answer to this and certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a nationalist.

    Saying that there is nothing magnanimous in recognising someone’s identity and if people’s nationality is part of that identity so be it.

    The green-orange nature of politics in NI is frustrating as hell for those of us on the left but we have to (or at least attempt to) understand why it’s so dominant. While in a broader scope the political creed of nationalism is a relatively new concept it has been a largely insidious and an undoubtedly successful one. Almost every political party across Europe (PES included) will hat tip their respective nationality. Of course most countries and regions don’t disagree with themselves over what their nationality actually is.

    I’m no fan of the designation system of government but I recognise that there has to be some mechanism like this in any consociational or power sharing government. The current set up is the best we’ve had in NI in a generation but that’s no reason not to demand something better. I think we need to move past this ‘ugly scaffolding’ to a more voluntary coalition system (with weighted votes and various other mechanisms to ensure it’s not a case of a majority bludgeoning the minority).

    Eurosocialist I do agree with you that’s there’s little point in the SDLP chasing Sinn Fein up the flag pole (and more importantly it’s not the right thing to do politically), but credit where credit’s due the party hasn’t been over the last year or so. Over the last while it’s main message has been on economic recovery whereas socially it has been focusing on a shared future (and in cases like Margaret wearing the poppy – our shared past).
    That whole episode surrounding SF’s offer of an electoral pact (and the SDLP turning it down) did show the difference in approach to politics.

    We do have a PES Activists branch in NI with members of the SDLP, Irish and British Labour. There’s little point in making it out to be the most thriving group in existence but it’s certainly sowing seeds. We’re also trying to co-ordinate more on a North-South, East-West basis (argh community sector speak) – basically building links between the three parties corporately (eg looking at getting a view canvassing visits in the next few weeks) as well as between members living in NI. We even have a website (although it’s not very good) at

    We’re also looking at other ways to bounce ideas off each other such as the Co-operative party and there’s been talk of setting up something akin to a branch of the Fabians. Hopefully when these elections run their course there will a bit more time to sit down with each other.

    However while that sounds grand and easy what we need to do is learn from the vast multitude of failed micro groups all claiming the labour banner which populate the footnotes of NI’s history (since the demise of the NI Labour Party in the 60’s we have had Republican Labour, Unionist Labour, Newtownabbey Labour, Derry Labour, Belfast Labour, Labour 87, Labour NI, Independent Labour, Labour Integrationist (my personal favourite) and many many more – god forbid that any of them worked together and as a collective of groups their sole contribution to main stream politics was Kate Hoey – and nobody really wants to talk about that).

    If we are to build better links between the three Labour parties on the two islands we can’t be starting off on the basis that the SDLP/ILP/BLP is wrong and we’re right – a bit of intellectual honesty and a dose of humility is needed.

    Advice I need to remind myself of every so often.

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