Social Democratic and Labour Party

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Social Democratic and Labour Party
Páirtí Sóisialta Daonlathach an Lucht Oibre
LeaderColum Eastwood
Deputy LeaderNichola Mallon
ChairpersonColin McGrath
Party ManagerCatherine Matthews
FounderGerry Fitt
John Hume
Ivan Cooper
Austin Currie
Paddy Devlin
Paddy O'Hanlon
Paddy Wilson
Founded21 August 1970;
51 years ago
Headquarters121 Ormeau Road
BT7 1SH[2]
Youth wingSDLP Youth
Women's wingSDLP Women
IdeologySocial democracy[3]
Irish nationalism[4]
Political positionCentre-left[5][6]
European affiliationParty of European Socialists
International affiliationSocialist International
British affiliationLabour Party
Colours  Green and   Red
Anthem"The Red Flag"[7]
House of Commons
(NI Seats)
2 / 18
NI Assembly
12 / 90
Local government in Northern Ireland[8]
56 / 462

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) (Irish: Páirtí Sóisialta Daonlathach an Lucht Oibre)[9] is a social-democratic[5][10][11] and Irish nationalist[10][12][13] political party in Northern Ireland. The SDLP currently has 12 MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly and two Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of the Commons of the United Kingdom.

The SDLP party platform advocates Irish reunification[3] and 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 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.


Foundation and early history[edit]

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),[14] 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 regarding the role being given to the Irish government in terms of Northern Ireland, and it was to be 25 years before the party sat in government again.

Good Friday Agreement and return to government[edit]

The SDLP was a key player in the talks throughout the 1990s that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.[15] John Hume won a Nobel Peace Prize that year with Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble in recognition of their efforts.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

Upon Mallon's retirement in 2001, Mark Durkan succeeded him as Deputy First Minister.

Possible merger[edit]

There had been a debate in the party on the prospects of amalgamation with Fianna Fáil.[19] Little came of this speculation and former party leader, Margaret Ritchie, rejected the idea. Speaking at the 2010 Irish 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."[20] After his election as Fianna Fáil Leader in January 2011, Micheál Martin repeatedly dismissed the possibility of a merger or electoral alliance with the SDLP. In January 2019, the SDLP membership were e-mailed on the issue with the text "continuing on as normal is not an option", a reference to the party's declining fortunes.[21]

In February 2019, at a special party conference, the members approved a partnership with Fianna Fáil,[22] the main opposition party in the Republic of Ireland. Both parties shared policies on key areas including addressing the current political situation in Northern Ireland, improving public services in both jurisdictions of Ireland, such as healthcare and education, and bringing about further unity and co-operation of the people on the island and arrangements for a future poll on Irish reunification.[23]

Claire Hanna, MLA for Belfast South and party spokesperson on Brexit, quit the assembly group as a result.[24]

Westminster Parliament[edit]

In contrast to Sinn Féin, which follows a policy of abstentionism, the SDLP MPs have always taken their seat in the Westminster parliament. The party's first MP was its leader Gerry Fitt who was already a sitting MP when the SDLP was founded.[25] The SDLP's best result was in 1992 general election when they won four out of 17 seats. Its worst result was in 2017 when they lost all their seats. In 2019 they won two seats.

Although not abstentionist, SDLP MPs have protested the parliamentary oath required of every member of parliament. At the swearing in ceremony after the 2019 general election, the party leader Colum Eastwood said:

"Under protest and in order to represent my constituency, I do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. My true allegiance is to the people of Derry and the people of Ireland."[26]

Proposed Dáil participation[edit]

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 proposal to allow MPs and MEPs from Northern Ireland to participate in debates on the region. However, the plan was met with vociferous opposition from the Republic's main opposition parties, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, and was subsequently shelved.[27] Unionists had also strongly opposed the proposal.

Remembrance Day 2010[edit]

On Remembrance Day in 2010, party leader Margaret Ritchie made history by becoming the first leader of a nationalist party to wear a poppy while attending a wreath-laying ceremony in Downpatrick, County Down. The poppy is worn on the lapel in the United Kingdom as a mark of respect and remembrance for fallen soldiers in the period around Remembrance Day and is controversial in Northern Ireland, as it is viewed by many as a political symbol representing support for the British Army.[28] Because of this, it has long been the preserve of the unionist/loyalist community.[29] Her actions drew praise from unionists.[30][31][32]

Leadership challenges and elections, 2011–2015[edit]

On 27 July 2011, it was reported that Margaret Ritchie faced a leadership challenge from deputy leader Patsy McGlone.[33] 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"[34]

Alasdair McDonnell was confirmed as Ritchie's successor after the subsequent leadership election on 5 November 2011.[35]

Colum Eastwood challenged McDonnell and replaced him as leader after the party's 2015 leadership election.[36]


The SDLP is a social democratic party which opposes Brexit.[37] They are an Irish nationalist party who advocate for a shared home place for all the people on the island of Ireland.[38]


Colum Eastwood is the sixth leader of the SDLP, taking over from Alasdair McDonnell in 2015.


No. Portrait Leader Period Constituency
1 Gerry Fitt 1970–1979 MP (Parliament of Northern Ireland) for Belfast Dock (19621972)
MP (UK Parliament) for Belfast West (19661983)
2 John Hume 1979–2001 MP for Foyle (19691972)
MEP for Northern Ireland (19792004)
MP for Foyle (19832005)
MLA for Foyle (1998–2000)
3 Mark Durkan 2001–2010 MLA for Foyle (1998–2010)
MP for Foyle (20052017)
4 Margaret Ritchie 2010–2011 MLA for South Down (2003–2012)
MP for South Down (20102017)
5 Alasdair McDonnell 2011–2015 MLA for Belfast South (1998–2015)
MP for Belfast South (20052017)
6 Colum Eastwood 2015–present MLA for Foyle (2011-2019)
MP for Foyle (from 2019)

Deputy leader[edit]

No. Portrait Leader Period Constituency Leader
1 John Hume 1970–1979 MP for Foyle (19691972)
MEP for Northern Ireland (19792004)
MP for Foyle (19832005)
MLA for Foyle (1998–2000)
Gerry Fitt
2 Seamus Mallon 1979–2001 MP for Newry and Armagh (19862005)
MLA for Newry and Armagh (19982003)
John Hume
3 Bríd Rodgers 2001–2004 MLA for Upper Bann (19982003) Mark Durkan
4 Alasdair McDonnell 2004–2010 MLA for Belfast South (1998–2015)
MP for Belfast South (20052017)
5 Patsy McGlone 2010–2011 MLA for Mid-Ulster (from 2003) Margaret Ritchie
6 Dolores Kelly 2011–2015 MLA for Upper Bann (20032016; from 2017) Alasdair McDonnell
7 Fearghal McKinney 2015–2016 MLA for Belfast South (2013–2016) Colum Eastwood
8 Nichola Mallon 2017–present MLA for Belfast North (from 2016)

Elected representatives[edit]

The SDLP currently have two MPs in the UK Parliament, twelve MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly and 56 councillors across Northern Ireland's 11 councils.[39]

Northern Ireland council seats
Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council
4 / 40
Ards and North Down Borough Council
1 / 40
Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council
6 / 41
Belfast City Council
6 / 60
Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council
4 / 40
Derry City and Strabane District Council
11 / 40
Fermanagh and Omagh District Council
5 / 40
Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council
2 / 40
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council
1 / 40
Mid Ulster District Council
5 / 40
Newry, Mourne and Down District Council
11 / 41


MP Constituency Period Notes
Colum Eastwood Foyle 2019–present SDLP Leader; Foyle MLA 2011–2019
Claire Hanna Belfast South 2019–present Belfast South MLA 2015–2019


MLA Constituency Period Notes
Sinead Bradley South Down 2016–present Spokesperson for Justice
Pat Catney Lagan Valley 2017–present Spokesperson for Hospitality and High Street Renewal
Mark H. Durkan Foyle 2011–present Spokesperson for Communities and Culture
Cara Hunter East Londonderry 2020–present Climate Champion and Spokesperson for New Generations
Dolores Kelly Upper Bann 20032016; 2017–present Spokesperson for Policing
Nichola Mallon Belfast North 2016–present SDLP Deputy Leader; Minister for Infrastructure
Daniel McCrossan West Tyrone 2015–present Spokesperson for Education
Patsy McGlone Mid Ulster 2003–present Assembly Deputy Speaker; Spokesperson for Agriculture and Language
Colin McGrath South Down 2016–present SDLP Chairperson; Spokesperson for Health
Sinead McLaughlin Foyle 2020–present Spokesperson for COVID Recovery
Justin McNulty Newry and Armagh 2016–present Spokesperson for Young People and Sport
Matthew O'Toole Belfast South 2020–present Spokesperson for the Economy and Brexit

Electoral performance[edit]

Upon its formation, the SDLP quickly established itself as the second largest party and the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland. It largely held this position until the beginning of the 21st century. In the 1998 Assembly election, it became the biggest party overall in terms of votes received and the first nationalist party to do so. However, the 2001 general election and the 2003 Assembly election saw Sinn Féin win 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".[40]

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.

In the 2009 European election the party fielded Alban Maginness as their candidate and failed to gain a seat with 78,489 first preference votes.[41]

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. The decline continued in the 2016 Assembly election, as a further two seats were lost and the total number of votes received continued to drop.

In the 2017 Assembly election the party retained 12 seats and increased its seat share for the first time since 1998 due to a drop in the size of the assembly. This was followed by the 2017 general election where the SDLP lost all three seats and returned its worst ever vote share. In the 2019 European Election party leader Colum Eastwood ran, increasing his party's vote but failing to take a seat. In the general election later that year the party recaptured Belfast South and Foyle with the highest ever vote recorded for the party in both constituencies and managed to increase its vote across Northern Ireland to its highest in almost fifteen years for a general election. The two seats held by the party currently have the largest majorities of any constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Devolved legislature elections[edit]

Election Body Leader First Preference Votes Seats Position Government
No. Share No. Change
1973 1973 Assembly Gerry Fitt 159,773 22.1%
19 / 78
Increase19 Increase2nd UUP-SDLP-Alliance
1975 Constitutional Convention 156,049 23.7%
17 / 78
Decrease2 Steady2nd Direct rule
1982 1982 Assembly John Hume 118,891 18.8%
14 / 78
Decrease3 Decrease3rd Direct rule
1996 Forum 160,786 21.4%
21 / 110
Increase7 Steady3rd Direct rule
1998 1st Assembly 177,963 22.0%
24 / 108
Increase3 Increase2nd UUP-SDLP-DUP-Sinn Féin
2003 2nd Assembly Mark Durkan 117,547 17.0%
18 / 108
Decrease6 Decrease4th Direct rule
2007 3rd Assembly 105,164 15.2%
16 / 108
Decrease2 Steady4th DUP-Sinn Féin-UUP-SDLP-Alliance
2011 4th Assembly Margaret Ritchie 94,286 14.2%
14 / 108
Decrease2 Steady4th DUP-Sinn Féin-UUP-SDLP-Alliance
2016 5th Assembly Colum Eastwood 83,364 12.0%
12 / 108
Decrease2 Steady4th DUP-Sinn Féin-Independent
2017 6th Assembly 95,958 11.9%
12 / 90
Steady Increase3rd DUP-Sinn Féin-SDLP-UUP-Alliance

Westminster elections[edit]

Election House of Commons Leader Votes Seats Position Government
No. Share No. Change
Feb 1974 46th Gerry Fitt 160,137 22.4% (in NI)
0.5% (in UK)
1 / 12
Increase1 Increase3rd Labour
Oct 1974 47th 154,193 22.0% (in NI)
0.6% (in UK)
1 / 12
Steady Steady3rd Labour
1979 48th 126,325 18.2% (in NI)
0.4% (in UK)
1 / 12
Steady Steady3rd Conservative
1983 49th John Hume 137,012 17.9% (in NI)
0.4% (in UK)
1 / 17
Steady Steady3rd Conservative
1987 50th 154,067 21.1% (in NI)
0.5% (in UK)
3 / 17
Increase2 Increase2nd Conservative
1992 51st 184,445 23.5% (in NI)
0.5% (in UK)
4 / 17
Increase1 Steady2nd Conservative
1997 52nd 190,814 24.1% (in NI)
0.6% (in UK)
3 / 18
Decrease1 Steady2nd Labour
2001 53rd 169,865 21.0% (in NI)
0.6% (in UK)
3 / 18
Steady Decrease4th Labour
2005 54th Mark Durkan 125,626 17.5% (in NI)
0.5% (in UK)
3 / 18
Steady Increase3rd Labour
2010 55th Margaret Ritchie 110,970 16.5% (in NI)
0.4% (in UK)
3 / 18
Steady Steady3rd Conservative-Liberal Democrats
2015 56th Alasdair McDonnell 99,809 13.9% (in NI)
0.3% (in UK)
3 / 18
Steady Steady3rd Conservative
2017 57th Colum Eastwood 95,419 11.7% (in NI)
0.3% (in UK)
0 / 18
Decrease3 Steady Conservative
(DUP confidence and supply)
2019 58th 118,737 14.9% (in NI)
0.4% (in UK)
2 / 18
Increase2 Increase3rd Conservative

Local government elections[edit]

Election Leader First Preference Votes Seats Position
No. Share No. Change
1973 Gerry Fitt 92,600 13.4%
82 / 517
Increase82 Increase2nd
1977 114,775 20.6%
113 / 526
Increase31 Steady2nd
1981 John Hume 116,487 17.5%
104 / 526
Decrease9 Decrease3rd
1985 113,967 17.8%
102 / 565
Decrease2 Steady3rd
1989 129,557 21.0%
121 / 565
Increase19 Increase2nd
1993 136,760 22.0%
127 / 582
Increase6 Steady2nd
1997 130,387 21.0%
120 / 575
Decrease7 Steady2nd
2001 153,424 19.0%
117 / 582
Decrease3 Decrease3rd
2005 Mark Durkan 121,991 17.4%
101 / 582
Decrease16 Decrease4th
2011 Margaret Ritchie 99,325 15.0%
87 / 583
Decrease14 Steady4th
2014 Alasdair McDonnell 85,237 13.6%
66 / 462
Decrease21 Steady4th
2019 Colum Eastwood 81,419 12.0%
59 / 462
Decrease7 Steady4th

European elections[edit]

Election Leader First Preference Votes Seats Position
No. Share No. Change
1979 Gerry Fitt 140,622 25.5%
1 / 3
Increase1 Increase2nd
1984 John Hume 151,399 22.1%
1 / 3
Steady Steady2nd
1989 136,335 25.0%
1 / 3
Steady Steady2nd
1994 161,992 28.9%
1 / 3
Steady Steady2nd
1999 190,731 28.1%
1 / 3
Steady Steady2nd
2004 Mark Durkan 87,559 15.9%
0 / 3
Decrease1 Decrease4th
2009 78,489 16.1%
0 / 3
Steady Steady4th
2014 Alasdair McDonnell 81,594 13.0%
0 / 3
Steady Steady4th
2019 Colum Eastwood 78,589 13.7%
0 / 3
Steady Steady4th

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]