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.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.