As Splintered Sunrise notes, the SDLP has lost out to Sinn Féin in recent years as the leading voice of nationalists in Northern Ireland:
Even in the Republic of West Belfast, there are layers of people – often middle class, yes, but also located in the more respectable end of the working class – who would be boiled in oil before they’d vote Provo. But these layers are relatively middle-aged and elderly – those under 30, if they vote at all, only vote for one party – and are thoroughly demoralised.
Roe Valley Socialist offers a generous assessment of Durkan's leadership and looks at some of the issues that could shape the leadership election, such as the SDLP's complex relationship with southern-based parties:
some of the front-runners for the leadership have had a relationship with Fianna Fail in the past that is too comfortable for those in the party committed to membership of Socialist International and co-operation with the Irish Labour Party. Unlike our sister party, Fianna Fail have actively held meetings in SDLP-held constituencies, competed for members at university events and established tentative branch structures in areas in Derry and along the border.
Mick Fealty sees the SDLP's problems as part of a wider malaise within nationalism:
In truth northern Irish nationalism is dying from the inside out. In the heady days of 1998, many convinced themselves they'd hoodwinked the unionists into drinking some kind of magic draft that would bring us all seamlessly and dreamily into a "United Ireland". The promise of the Good Friday Agreement and the untold wealth of the Celtic Tiger have been frittered away in a bitter and increasingly narrowly focused party political game. Partition, which seemed to be disappearing like snow off a ditch, now looks deeper and wider than ever.
The political drift arguably extends to unionism as well. The DUP has stalemated nationalists in the executive without offering a positive vision of its own. The UUP's alliance with the Conservatives has allowed it achieve a degree of renewal, but ultimately represents a return to an integrationism that failed in the past, within a United Kingdom becoming ever more devolutionist.
Some in the UUP hope for a boost from a Conservative victory. Ulster Unionist peer Paul Bew wrote in the Spectator recently that "Any incoming Cameron government requires the stability of the Agreement and its devolved institutions, but it needs to be able to move on from it in certain respects."
He added that "The removal of the spectre of an imposed Anglo-Irish Joint Authority, which is effectively what Cameron has done, means that the local parties have no choice but to work within the existing devolved compromise."
In reality, a functioning executive is at least as important to the nationalist parties' all-Ireland project as it is to unionism. The possibility of a Cameron government may, however, concentrate minds in the DUP, which according to Bew "visibly fears the prospect of a Cameron predominance in British politics to the point of actually demonstrating against him on his visit to Ballymena."
Bew argues that the Tories' main priority for Northern Ireland is for stable institutions focused on the North's social and economic problems. That is not something that can be delivered from Westminster.
The progress of the past 20 years stems largely from decisions that were taken in Ireland against the grim political and economic backdrop of the late 1980s. A key element was the dialogue between the SDLP's John Hume and Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams, the first public step in the process that led to the IRA ceasefire and ultimately the Good Friday Agreement.
The result was a period of unprecedented success for both parties. Each advanced electorally, despite the robust competition between them, and they achieved goals that neither could have hoped to on their own.
Durkan evoked that period recently when he called for the reconvention of the Forum on Irish Unity. That may now go down as the last throw of the dice from a departing leader. That would be a mistake both for the SDLP and Sinn Féin. Like the peace process, the economic crisis is a task too big for either party to handle alone.