Following his party’s disappointing election performance in May 2022, SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole talks to David Whelan about a move to Opposition, plans to renew the party, and his outlook on the constitutional future of the region.
Despite being an MLA for less than three years, the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole is now a senior figure and leading face of the party.
O’Toole, a former Chief Press Officer in 10 Downing Street, relocated his family back to Northern Ireland when the opportunity arose to replace party colleague Claire Hanna MP as a representative for Belfast South in the Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2020. Despite his short tenure, he now leads the SDLP’s Assembly group.
The Belfast-born MLA’s escalation is set in the context of a bruising election in May 2022 which saw the SDLP slip from third to fifth in terms of Assembly seats, relegating it from the Executive and ensuring the loss of some senior figures, not least its deputy leader Nichola Mallon.
In response to losing four of its previously held 12 seats, squeezed by increases in both Sinn Féin’s and the Alliance Party’s vote, understandably, shortly after the election, the party launched an internal review, the findings of which have now been shared with members.
O’Toole outlines a three-stranded review which looked at membership structures, professional structures (including staff and elected representatives), and the party’s messaging.
“It has been a positive and constructive process,” he states. “At no point have we been in denial about the election and unlike others, we took our lumps.”
In July 2022, in the absence of a post-election new Executive, the SDLP announced a move to Opposition, with party leader Colum Eastwood MP formally nominating O’Toole as Leader of the Opposition.
Official Opposition at Stormont, made possible in 2016 through the Assembly and Executive Reform (Opposition) Bill, entitles parties to the right to determine Assembly business on 10 plenary days per year, extra speaking and questioning rights in plenary meetings, research, and some modest financial assistance.
O’Toole contests the idea that the move was a foregone conclusion, following the loss of the right to a seat on the Executive. “We did not have to designate as Official Opposition and we did not have to do it when we did,” he states, admitting that the timing enabled the unsuccessful application of “distinct pressure” on the DUP to return to fully functioning government, through the recalling of the Assembly.
The Belfast South MLA indicates that the move to Opposition underpins some of outcomes of the internal review.
“The move to Opposition is part of showing that we are taking a different direction as a party. One of the election outcomes was that we received a lot of second preference votes. So, there is a big array of people who still want the SDLP around and still want them in the political firmament.
“We need to understand who those voters are. We need to refresh ourselves as a movement in terms of what our core values are. Part of that is being in Opposition, part of that is rebuilding ourselves as a movement which has a vision of what we want in society, what we want for Northern Ireland and what we want in the Ireland of the future.”
O’Toole echoes comments made by the SDLP leader that the party has struggled to define itself in the years after the Good Friday Agreement.
“For a long time, a lot of people have seen the SDLP as a piece of infrastructure that they like having there. They trust us. But it is not our job to make everything work for everyone else.
“Part of what we need to do is to talk confidently about what we are and are not allow other people to define us.”
“We want to see an Executive formed and we will be a constructive, serious Opposition,” he adds.
Interestingly, O’Toole indicates that the move to Opposition may have been on the cards, even if the party had qualified for an Executive portfolio.
“It is highly probable that we would have considered going into Opposition,” he states. “The blunt truth is that in the last mandate, there were structures around how decisions were taken, particularly between the two big parties, which did not build a sense of shared governance.
“Certainly, we would have went in [to talks] with a constructive mindset but there is a strong probability that we would have been in Opposition anyway, given some of the lessons we learnt in the last mandate.”
A major consequence of the loss of an Executive mandate is the removal of the right to participate in currently ongoing talks with the Head of the Civil Service on a draft Programme for Government. However, O’Toole believes that party can use the opportunity away from government to grow, with an overall ambition of more votes and more seats.
Quizzed on where he sees these votes coming from, O’Toole says that a major message from the party review is the confident delivery of the party’s message.
“Part of what we need to do is to talk confidently about what we are and not allow other people to define us.”
The MLA believes the SDLP are uniquely placed to create a social democratic ‘new Ireland’ and identifies three big divisions in Ireland which they can help to address in the form of geographical division, division of the two traditions, and division of inequality and economic opportunity.
“A lot of people who want to end sectarianism in this society are aware that the way we are constituted in this place and the way we were created 100 years ago has enshrined and perpetuated the daily division. Sinn Féin, in my view, cannot do reconciliation and I do not think they are as genuinely, truly committed to reconciliation being part of ending partition as we are. I do not think the Alliance Party want to talk about partition. They want to shy away from that because they have got an electoral coalition that works for them at the minute.
“We are a party that wants to end those divisions. None of us are kidding ourselves about the challenge we had in the election, but when I look at the political landscape, I think that there is a space for a progressive centre left party and a lot of people are in that space.
“We need to describe ourselves better. Young people have not had us tell them clearly what we want and what we are offering: an anti-sectarian, democratic new Ireland.”
Of course, talk of a future mandate is done in the context that the Northern Ireland Assembly has yet to return after the election and no solid indication of how negotiations around the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol will shape the potential return of the institutions. O’Toole believes little appetite existed for a second election in 2022 and is of the opinion that the UK’s current sovereign debt crisis has bolstered the likelihood of a deal being agreed between the UK Government and the EU.
The MLA insists his party has “led the debate” on the opportunities the Protocol represents for Northern Ireland. He welcomes the potential “smoothing” of barriers to trade, which he describes as an inevitable consequence of the Brexit referendum but raises opposition to any prospect of “our access to the single market being watered down”.
A central plank of the SDLP’s renewed message, which they aim to deliver with confidence, is the ambition for creating an anti-sectarian, democratic new Ireland. In July 2020, the SDLP launched the New Ireland Commission, which seeks to “engage with every community, sector and generation on this island to build new proposals that can generate a consensus on our future constitutional arrangements”.
O’Toole contends that part of the SDLP’s role in Opposition will be to set out its case for ending partition. Recent Census results, which recorded Catholics outnumbering Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time, spurred fresh calls from some quarters for a border poll date to be set.
O’Toole wants constitutional change but is hesitant to define a date for when a border poll should be held. Instead, he believes calls for a border poll now is “narrow” thinking. However, when pushed, he adds: “I think years, not decades.”
The Belfast South MLA believes ‘when’ is the last element of the question around a border poll or unity, with ‘why’ and ‘how’ needing to be addressed first.
Discussing the ‘why’, O’Toole points to some “clear limits” of Northern Ireland such as economic opportunity, equality, and basic governance. He also points to “clear opportunities” of re-joining the EU and of achieving “reconciliation on these islands and between these islands”.
“What our party brings to the table is reconciliation with unity. These projects have to go along together. That does not mean that every unionist has to be in favour, but it does mean that they know in the new Ireland being designed that there is a sincere, profound and deep attempt to not just try to accommodate unionism or Britishness, but to celebrate it.”
Additionally, he points to the potential benefits of meeting current challenges by delivering an all-island health service and addressing the climate change and biodiversity crises in a unified way.
“The ‘why’ is what gets you passionate, but you also have to consider the ‘how’,” he says. “How do we pay for it? How does it work bureaucratically, what will the transition look like in fiscal terms?”
“If you can answer ‘why’ and ‘how’, then the further question is the ‘when’. That is not putting the issue on the long finger, the ‘when’ question comes quicker when you have addressed the ‘why’ and ‘how’.”
To those who believe work towards constitutional change undermines work towards a functioning Stormont, O’Toole says that it is a completely reasonable approach to build a vision and then set out detail on how you mean to achieve it.
“A part of us being in Opposition is about setting out our case. We are not boycotting our role as a constructive and serious Opposition but we are also seeking to build a vision for an anti-sectarian, democratic new Ireland.”
Looking to the future, O’Toole says that he looks forward to continuing to be involved in the party’s leadership group and to leading the Assembly group in Opposition.
“I think the key thing is refreshing our message and our vision for people. A big part of that is having a better Northern Ireland now and then building a vision for a social democratic new Ireland in the years to come,” he concludes.