Why a Downing Street spokesman will sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the SDLP

The nationalist party’s appointment of Westminster commentator and former civil servant Matthew O’Toole to its vacant seat in South Belfast says much about its ambition for the 2020s.

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Co-options to the Northern Ireland Assembly – the process by which vacant seats are filled by direct appointment rather than a by-election – are never noticed at Westminster. The most recent, however, has proved an exception. Matthew O’Toole, the former Downing Street spokesman and Treasury civil servant, will replace Claire Hanna as SDLP MLA for South Belfast after the latter’s landslide election to Westminster last month. 

It is a bold appointment that says much about the renewed ambition of a party that had until recent months looked somewhat adrift. That is precisely because it isn’t your typical co-option of a local councillor or similar: O’Toole is originally from County Down but has spent most of his working life in Westminster – a journey that Colum Eastwood might say, as he did in a pre-election debate on UTV, highlights the crisis of graduate retention in Northern Ireland.

What, though, does O’Toole’s appointment to a vacancy in South Belfast say about an SDLP entering the 2020s in a stronger position than most observers of politics in Northern Ireland anticipated? There is no denying the move is a gamble, particularly for the SDLP.  But there is also a strong case for the defence. Since his departure from government, O’Toole has emerged as one of the most thoughtful voices writing on Northern Ireland, Brexit and the future of the Union as we know it for the UK and Irish media (including, it should be said, for the NS). 

He has thought hard about the knotty, seemingly intractable questions of identity and belonging – and how they clash with the forces of the state – that bedevil politics in Northern Ireland as a constituent part of the UK and will, if mishandled, continue to do so in the event it votes for Irish unification. Answering them intelligently is the SDLP’s defining mission for the coming decade.

But there are blunter politician considerations at play too. O’Toole is an assured media performer and is familiar – probably to a greater extent than almost any other MLA – with how government and the civil service work. As the grim farce of the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry has shown, those are qualities in alarmingly short supply at Stormont. That the SDLP has a talented leadership team is in no doubt but even sympathetic observers would admit that, with a few notable exceptions, its Assembly group is somewhat underpowered.

As devolution returns after a chastening election for Sinn Féin and the DUP – and a famous one for the SDLP and Alliance – smaller parties face a moment of opportunity. Senior figures in the SDLP admit that it must change to seize it. The past two-and-a-half years have seen something of a generational shift in the party’s public face, a process that culminated in the election of Hanna and Colum Eastwood to Westminster.

What it lacks is figures of comparable dynamism and strength in depth. There is a recognition that it needs candidates and spokespeople who appear comfortable communicating an inclusive, progressive nationalism – and each of those words is equally important – to the Northern Ireland of the 2020s. Bluntly, that means speaking to audiences beyond the parish pump and presbytery that are popularly imagined to be the SDLP’s happiest home. O’Toole certainly fits the bill. The challenge, as the serious strategic thinkers among his new colleagues will tell you, is finding more representatives like him.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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