SDLP shows signs of life … and opposition

If the number of motions raised by party branches was an indication of strength and fervour, the SDLP would have forever lost their South Down and Londonderry Party nickname.

Unlike unionist party conferences, the SDLP’s annual shindig is a policy body as well as a public relations vehicle. Outside of the Parliamentary Assembly Group which raised around one third of the 118 motions, Belfast branches lead the lobbying table:

  • 9 Balmoral
  • 8 Anderstown
  • 6 Youth
  • 6 Omagh
  • 5 Rowallane (South Down)

With motions from nearly 20 different branches and party groups, the SDLP shows signs of activity right across Northern Ireland. Though I can’t find a single contribution from the Lagan Valley branch. Perhaps Alasdair McDonnell’s promise to reinvigorate the party structure is paying off?

Motions debated this afternoon noted the party’s concern about “anti-social behaviour, sexual assault and theft in … the Holylands”.

As well as motions asking for “greater flexibility in the provision of STEM education” and one calling on the Department of Education “to put an end to the uncertainty and lack of clarity surrounding the unregulated transfer system” there was a motion to show that the conference “deplores the short-sighted decision of Queen’s University Belfast to close the QUB German department”.

Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster’s ears will have been burning this afternoon as a motion called on her to “set aside her narrow ‘border mentality’ and ensure that the tourism authorities in Northern Ireland, including her Department and the NI Tourist Board, participate fully and enthusiastically in ‘The Gathering’ initiative”.

Competing motions and amendments will have spiced up the afternoon’s business. While conference voted 3:1 in favour of equal marriage, an unused amendment from the Enniskillen branch was on the books to limit party policy to same gender civil partnership:

39. Conference recommends that in view of the importance of the position of the family, universally defined as a union of husband and wife leading to the procreation of children, and, as such, the groundstone of society and the cement of its future development, we underline the principles of equality established by the Civil Partnership Act but emphasise, as it does, that the institution of marriage is for people of opposite gender and that civil partnership is for people of the same gender. Enniskillen Branch

Opposition was also visible in deputy leader Delores Kelly’s speech this evening:

But the fundamental political question is this..

Although Alex Attwood is an SDLP powerhouse in the Executive, this DUP/Sinn Fein administration is following a path that is increasingly difficult for us to support.

Especially difficult to support as partners in Government.

We may have swallowed, for example, a Review of Public Administration 11 Council carve-up, which we did not agree with, (and which Alex is now obliged to implement) but can we continue to accept the Welfare Reform onslaught? Or the disgraceful decisions on housing? Or the attempts to create community funds where the real intention is to channel money to favoured groups?

Can we really accept the road block on North/South? Or the continuing mess in Education after 10 years of incompetent and ideologically obsessed Sinn Fein Ministers?

So I pose the question. Shouldn’t we be thinking about going into some form of opposition? I’m not saying we should walk out of Government next week or next month, and I know there is no formal provision for Opposition – but shouldn’t we be thinking about where all this is going?

Because I can tell you, colleagues, that despite us being a Party of constructive participation and despite the valiant work of Alex Attwood, we are being tarnished by the failures and behaviours of this DUP/SF Executive. We might lose a few jobs by leaving Government – but we could lose our soul if we go on inthis Executive indefinitely. Do we need to give ourselves more freedom to act?

We have always been, and we remain, a confident Party brimming with ideas and idealism and hope. We have nothing to fear from leading change. Indeed we have always been prepared to lead change. So let’s think about our options for making things better.

So, as we enter this new phase of politics – where the price of political stability has been a slide into carve-up and a denial of all that was positive and forward-looking in the Good Friday Agreement, let us take stock and have a clear think about what is actually best for our people in the period ahead.

We must always be the Party with the best values. And it is surely our responsibility, that which sets us apart, to restore hope to the people and to the politics of the North.

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