The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP — Irish: Páirtí Sóisialta Daonlathach an Lucht Oibre) is the smaller of the two major nationalist parties in Northern Ireland. The SDLP is also a social democratic party, and is affiliated to the Socialist International. It is a member of the Party of European Socialists. The party's youth wing is SDLP Youth.
The party was founded in the early 1970s. It was formed by former members of the Republican Labour Party - a fragment of the Irish Labour Party, the National Democrats , a small social democratic nationalist party, individual nationalists and members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. The SDLP initially rejected the Nationalist Party 's policy of abstensionism and sought to fight for civil rights within the Stormont system. As such the SDLP was an expression of the increased confidence of Catholics in the Norrthern state, as seen in the demands of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association over the previous decade.
The SDLP, though, quickly came to the view that Stormont was unreformable and withdrew from the Parliament.
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 Catholic civil rights 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/socialism and nationalism was to persist for the first decade of the party's existence. Founder and first leader Gerry Fitt - ironically a former leader of the explicitly republican 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 1980, claiming that it was no longer the party it was intended to be.
The SDLP has served in the current power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, alongside the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. (The powersharing administration is currently in suspension). Both Seamus Mallon and Mark Durkan served as Deputy First Minister under the UUP's David Trimble.
Loss to Sinn Féin
The SDLP was the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland from the time of its foundation until the beginning of the 21st century. In the 2001 General Election and in the 2003 Assembly Election, Sinn Féin, the political party allied to the Provisional IRA, won more seats and votes than the SDLP for the first time.
In the 2004 European elections, it lost the seat that John Hume held since 1979 to Sinn Féin.
Critics (generally those sympathetic to Sinn Féin) assert that the SDLP has now drifted from its nationalist roots, arguing that its position on the question of a United Ireland is deeply ambiguous, suggesting that many Catholics support the union but not Unionist parties. The SDLP reject this argument. They point out that they campaigned explictly in favour of a united Ireland in the 2003 Assembly elections.
Some see the SDLP as first and foremost a party representing Catholic interests, with voters concentrated in rural areas and the professional classes, rather than a vehicle for Irish nationalism. The SDLP also reject this argument, pointing to their strong support in Derry.
In recent years there has been a debate in the party on the prospects of almgamation with Fianna Fáil. FF have made no such offer, but have done little to discourage it either. A recent attempt to press for amalgamation was defeated heavily at the SDLP's conference in 2004, and the party resolved to strengthen it social democratic profile. But it would be wrong to regard the debate as a simple left versus right or red versus green question - as with Fianna Fail itself, advocates of merger take a variety of positions on the left-right spectrum.