Reflections on the SDLP conference and Alasdair McDonnell’s speech

Alasdair McDonnell speaking at 2012 SDLP ConferenceAfter Delores Kelly naughtily referred to opposition in her deputy leader’s speech, all ears where pinned to see whether party leader Alasdair McDonnell would reciprocate. But there wasn’t a single mention. Instead there was a critique of other parties that would have been better left to a more sharp-tongued colleague and little to inspire party members other than references to past influence and bright ideas that took more than ten years to deliver.

Don’t get me wrong; the mood in the conference hall was buoyant and full of hope. They loved the mention of former leader John Hume. They loved the idea that the party wanted to win back their seat in Europe.

But as an outsider listening to the speech, I heard references to the Good Friday Agreement that even the UUP have stopped relying on, references to bright ideas that the SDLP couldn’t deliver until other parties got involved, and references to a former leader who from my vantage point at the back of the hall seemed to attract a more spontaneous and larger standing ovation than the party leader, making McDonnell look weaker and less capable by comparison.

While there was no repeat of the blinding lights – and there was no teleprompter – there were still fluffed lines, particularly the news-friendly soundbite about Minister Atwood’s bite being every bit as bad as his bark. It was a laboured performance, and lacked the timing and charismatic preaching that Jim Allister or Peter Robinson will show over the next two weekends.

The Europe section would have been stronger if the SDLP had been able to name their candidate. Given that advantage that incumbents have, they’ll need to work hard to build a profile and garner votes. June 2014 is a great opportunity for the SDLP to play a non-sectarian pro-Europe card and gather votes from non-traditional quarters. But tonight’s BBC and UTV news bulletins won’t refer to that since there is no name in the frame.

A shorter speech, which spent less time criticising their competitors and concentrated more on the strengths of the SDLP and talked about a set of distinctive policies offerings, would have got an equal amount of applause and perhaps played better to the outside world.

Late on Friday night in closed session, delegates failed to back (some of) McDonnell’s proposals for party reorganisation. Senior party representatives spoke against them. Centralising power in party HQ was not met with favour. Delores Kelly was again outspoken and deliberately off-message by mentioning opposition in her speech despite being asked not to. Elected representatives and party members are not as easily controlled in the SDLP as in the DUP or Sinn Fein. Which is good for democracy, but not necessarily good for the leader.

You can listen to Alasdair McDonnell’s speech in two parts, or watch the BBC Two NI version on iPlayer until next Saturday.

Alasdair McDonnell started his speech reflecting on the murder of prison officer David Black.

The people behind this evil murder have nothing to offer us – politically or in any other way. They claim to carry out these acts in the name of Ireland. Have they learnt nothing from our island’s troubled past? Violence achieves nothing but pain, heartache and loss and pits neighbour against neighbour

We in the SDLP have always believed there is a better way – a better way to a better Ireland. Just as in the past others have slowly come round to share our point of view, we will continue to do all that we can to persuade those out there in the political wilderness.

Our view is simple: it’s time for Ireland to regain its sense of pride and its sense of self confidence as an island, as a nation, as a vital part of Europe and a key player in the wider world. We in the SDLP have vision and ambition – serious ambition – for all the people of Ireland, from every tradition and every community, because we believe that you deserve better.

We have a vision of a society founded on progressive values, where prosperity is encouraged, but financial institutions must operate ethically; where the state takes care of the sick, the elderly, the poor and the vulnerable; where every child is valued and a good quality education is guaranteed for all.

SDLP Conference 2012He reminded delegates about the values of the SDLP:

I am proud that we stand for compassion, respect, equality, social justice and prosperity … Above all I am proud of the values the SDLP brought to politics here a generation ago. Those values are eternal even though we may express them differently over time. In the new phase of politics, in our ambition, I believe we must express our values in terms of respect, equality, prosperity for all.

As the people of Carrick Hill and North Belfast have shown us – respect has the potential to be the master key to unlocking entrenched positions. A simple request for respect threatens no one and, if reciprocated – and that’s the critical element – can be the key to a wider and deeper process of reconciliation.

The “SDLP fight back” was “well underway”.

We are re-energised and well prepared for electoral battle again … We now have some 40 new local representatives, enthusiastically assisting and supporting our existing councillors and establishing good representation in those areas where we lacked a presence. We have vibrant, vital groups in Dublin, in London and in Brussels supporting the party with their time, their money and their ideas.

We are truly on the move again. The truth is, and everyone inside this room and outside it knows it -we are much stronger than we were a year ago. A resurgent SDLP is taking on the tough issues, rejecting the stagnation of a complacent and paralysed executive at Stormont.

There was a “Prosperity Gospel” theme that ran through the speech.

Our devolved institutions have established the stability threshold from which we can make real social and economic progress. But in order to realize our full potential, I believe that further recasting of relationships is necessary.

I believe that we now need a Prosperity Process which will provide a better life for all our people.

We need a new dynamic relationship with Government in London that allows us maximum devolved control of our own economic destiny and provides us with all the tools necessary to rebalance our economy. We need a new dynamic relationship with Government in Dublin that allows us to maximize the potential of north-south co-operation and to widen and deepen the all-Island economy at every level.

For us there can be no boundary between Peace and Prosperity – for us the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement will only be realized when we have created prosperity and a better life for all our people.

McDonnell said that “since the Assembly reconvened in September the SDLP has already made a marked difference”. The SDLP would challenge the DUP and Sinn Fein when they “get it wrong” and would “challenge their stagnant strategies on the floor of the Assembly”. Examples given included “calling Nelson McCausland to account on parades, and on the Welfare Reform Bill”.

Alex Atwood was praised:

We are a watchdog within the Executive. Through our Minister Alex Atwood, we will face the difficult decisions head on. And our watchdog’s bite is every bit as bad as his bark.

Peter Robinson was criticised:

The First Minister uses honeyed words about normalising Stormont and moving out of orange-and-green politics to left-and-right as a means of tricking voters into somehow thinking that a return to unionist domination under Peter is in their best interests.

That isn’t innovation. That’s just sectarianism with a fresh lick of paint.

Sinn Fein “is paralysed into dithering indecision, by the fear, not only of what the SDLP are doing, but fear of upsetting their bedfellows in the DUP.”

All the false set ups, phoney fights and mock arguments of the last month are nothing more than a fig leaf, designed to reassure supporters on both sides, that the DUP and Sinn Fein are still the tough kids in the playground. But the time for playing school boy politics has long gone.

The Fair Employment tribunal that said Conor Murphy “rejected the candidate for [NI Water] Chairman because
the candidate was a Protestant” was cited along with “two more Ministers from his party now stand accused of falling far short of what is required in making honest appointments to public bodies”.

The SDLP always was – and always will be – the party of civil rights for all, not jobs for the boys.

The Alliance Party will be pleased that they merited McDonnell’s attention – particularly since the UUP were not mentioned!

Ever since they were gerrymandered into two seats at the Executive table by Peter and Martin, David Ford and his party have been the lapdogs of the two big boys. How else can you explain their vote against a human rights assessment of the impact of welfare reform? How else can you explain their attack on the mobility of third level students? You certainly can’t explain it in terms of principles. This kind of paralysis can never deliver anything for our society.

McDonnell talked about jobs:

We will continue to engage with, listen to and work with the civic and business communities, trade unions and the community and voluntary sectors so that we understand even better the issues that continue to betray the wonderful potential which exists in Northern Ireland.

Top of the list is jobs — sustainable job creation — and protecting our small businesses is at the core of that. We reject the assertions by the Executive that they are doing all they can to create jobs.

He didn’t overly criticise the Economic Package [strangely launched by press release at 8pm one evening rather than in the Assembly chamber]:

The Economic Package just announced with great fanfare is a welcome step. It is only right that the Executive refocuses spending in the direction of job creation but, when you scratch the surface, specific details are few and far between. And there is little to nothing in the way of the way of new ideas or new money.

If they are doing all they can to protect and create jobs – then they are not up to the job. If they are not doing all they can, then shame on them. What our young people really need is hope for their future not to find themselves borrowing even more money to buy a plane ticket to far off shores like Australia, in search of work.

The Green New Deal, a “small reduction in fuel duty: and tourism were all possibilities for job creation.

The visitors we need to build a thriving Tourism industry are already coming to the island of Ireland – nine million of them every year. Six million come in through Dublin, only an hour’s drive from Armagh. But how many ever cross the border?

In our town centres, we have small retail businesses going to the wall. Remember – protecting and supporting those businesses protects jobs and protects the communities they serve. That is why the SDLP will be rolling out our own regeneration action plans for urban centres and rural towns and communities.

Later in the speech he came back to tourism:

The manifest reluctance of Arlene Foster to engage with Leo Varadkar’s plans for “The Gathering” – a year-long tourist drive aimed at bringing home Ireland’s global diaspora – was staggering in its lack of vision. The potential tourist revenue that could be generated for the North on the back of The Gathering seems to pass her by.

Mentioning welfare reform was an opportunity attack Sinn Fein again:

We have a much higher dependency on welfare here, for a variety of valid reasons: decades of underinvestment, severe under provision of child care and the legacy of the Troubles, with people still suffering from injuries, debilitating physical or mental distress as the result of a needless conflict …

It also makes me angry to hear the verbal somersaults of Sinn Fein spokesmen trying to convince voters that they’re really against the Welfare Reform Bill while all the time doing little to oppose it. Here is a message to Alex Maskey and Fra McCann: if you really are against the bill – just vote against it. Sometimes politics is that simple.

Education was covered in a section of the speech based around the supposition that “people want a bit of clarity and certainty out of politics”.

Parents want clarity and certainty about their children’s education. Will their child be able to get a free pre-school place in their own neighbourhood? Will their local primary school have a place for their child? Will their school be properly resourced and maintained? On a day when tens of thousands of 10 and 11 year old children are sitting unofficial exams — many of them doing them four Saturdays in a row, parents are asking “will the selection fiasco ever end?” We are working to ensure that all parents’ expectations are met.

Westminster wasn’t forgotten:

We build influence wherever we work – just look at Margaret Ritchie working tirelessly for farmers on the DEFRA committee in Westminster, Mark Durkan fighting for stronger credit unions and better regulated banks and my own efforts on your behalf to secure the reduction and devolution of Air Passenger Duty.

While there was no mention of the NI Labour Party, shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker was labelled as someone “who has always been a friend to the SDLP” and McDonnell said the SDLP would “continue to work closely with our friends in the British Labour Party”.

Delegates, East-West is important but North-South relationships and development are absolutely vital. North-South works because this engagement ensures that the South recognises and sees, first-hand, the opportunities in the North – our strengths and our weaknesses, economically, socially, politically and culturally, and it knows where we can complement each other. North-South development makes absolute sense, in so many areas of our lives.

We firmly believe this island of ours can be so much more prosperous as a result, whether it’s in providing space for cross-border healthcare or education, shared telecommunications or a common energy strategy. We must work together, north and south, in the mutual interest of the whole island.

McDonnell gave two examples of North-South links:

There is no greater symbol than the Narrow Water Bridge. And let me just remind you that it was in the mid 1970s that the SDLP first proposed this bridge. Can I pay tribute to all the representatives, all the Members and all the Party Activists who fought for and made this aspiration a reality. This is a victory for the SDLP. A victory for its values. In years to come Narrow Water Bridge will stand as a proud symbol of unity, particularly unity of purpose.

A victory for its values, but not its speed of execution or delivery.

14 years after we proposed it, the North-South Parliamentary Association is finally bringing together legislators from Stormont and the Oireachtas to find common cause on serious issues that affect the whole island. Within the north, the job of driving north south cooperation is increasingly being left to us.

Proposed 14 years ago but without the influence or clout to make it happen.

In this new phase of Irish politics now opening up, we will be asking all the parties of Democratic Nationalism on the island of Ireland to reaffirm their commitment to a joint approach to building a better future, a future which has respect, equality, reconciliation, social justice and prosperity at its core. It is only through unity of purpose in the present, that we can ever hope for national unity in the future.

On to Europe:

We in the SDLP are proud and committed Europeans as well as being proud Irishmen and women … We have a lot to offer Europe, both as a party and as a nation. Northern Ireland deserves so much better than a group of anti-European MEPs half-heartedly representing us when we could be making much more of our position, on Agriculture and CAP reform.

So let me tell you here and now: the SDLP is determined to win back our European seat in 2014 – and let me tell you – we will.

On truth and reconciliation:

Delegates in my opinion, it is time now for the reconciliation and prosperity process which has been so neglected, to truly begin. Victims deserve the truth.

If Sinn Fein are serious about a process of reconciliation and truth, let them start with telling the truth. The protection of the peace process has been used as a barrier to progress on truth and Reconciliation issues, issues which really matter.

We need real reconciliation and effective Government. Enough gestures and photo calls at sporting events from Peter and Martin.

Unless they are backed up with sustained leadership and genuine, credible moves towards long term reconciliation, they become cynical and serve as a barrier to meaningful reconciliation between the people of the North.

Where is the meaningful progress on CSI strategy?

McDonnell finished his 40 minute speech as the music to “we have overcome” faded up:

Today I want you all, each and every one of you, to go back to your constituency, your branches, and your communities and work with me to rebuild the SDLP and do what is necessary to get us back at the heart of Government again.

I know that we will in days to come be proud to look back on our work and the achievements we made for all the people of Ireland and finally say, in words yearned for through our party’s history: “We have overcome”.

[Watching back the BBC coverage of the end of the speech, McDonnell remains on stage with his family beside him for a remarkably long time – nearly 40 seconds – before other members of the party come across to stand beside him on stage.]

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