Can Caroline McNeill capture S. Belfast?

South Belfast has been one of the few shining lights for the SDLP during its years on the sidelines. Where the party, overall, has hemorrhaged seats, members (and, of course, members’ dues), press interest and, consequently, political relevance and leverage since the early 2000s, South Belfast – a majority unionist constituency -has twice returned eventual and current Party Leader Alasdair McDonnell to Westminster. How did the SDLP buck its general trend in this neighborhood?

If John Hume had the single transferable speech, McDonnell has forged the party’s single transferable constituency strategy: Hard work; constituency work. It’s not what the stuff of great speeches are made of. It’s not vacuous champagne socialist rhetoric. It is, however, what explains the SDLP’s strength in South Belfast: A growing membership base, a reputation for delivery at local level, and, not least, a sense, if whispered, that politics can be more than the lines that divide neighbours; that it can be a resource for bringing people together to fix, slowly, steadily, quietly, the little things.

Constituency building is how trust is forged and votes are won. It’s how a Nationalist can transcend sectarian labels and get elected with the endorsement of a not insubstantial number of nominally Protestant electors – an indispensable requirement of any candidate who aspires to help build a new Ireland.

Against this backdrop, that one of the party’s BT9 MLAs has had to resign in suboptimal circumstances is, well, suboptimal. But the question of the successor is intriguing for reasons beyond the usual candidate-based speculation. There’s something deeper to look for here; less who’s next but rather what are the dynamics driving their selection?

The strategy behind the SDLP’s growing strength in South Belfast has, for many years now, doubled as a road map available to the rest of the party. Since McDonnell’s leadership, rising member subscriptions and growing branch numbers indicate his leadership’s focus. This new MLA opening in his own backyard offers yet one more test of what we might call the McDonnell Doctrine.

The McDonnell Doctrine, as I understand it, is quite simple. The reemergence of the politics of compromise, common sense, and common ground requires a strong SDLP. This, in turn, requires a strong, professional SDLP operation – hence the centrality of this leader’s fixation on internally marketing his South Belfast blueprint across the north.

If the McDonnell Doctrine is to really take root across the party, one simple performance metric is based on tracking the emergence of new talent. The dynamics driving the selection of S.Belfast’s new MLA will therefore help test his implementation and internal marketing success.

The leader’s bona fides as a promoter of youth are already established. Having appointed Mark H Durkan (previously one of the most popular local councilors on the island of Ireland) as the party’s sole Minister, McDonnell’s policy of embracing and promoting candidates who mix youth and hard graft is a welcome break from his party’s past.

What McDonnell constructed locally over many years was not built on flowery speeches or empty promises – which is why, presumably, its lasted. If he’s to use his leadership to roll-out S. Belfast’s successful operational lessons across the six counties then we can expect his tenure to concentrate first on stabalizing a membership base, then growing it, and then using the enthusiasm of the expanded and reinvigorated membership to win back – to earn back – the party’s punching power through sheer force of membership growth and local problem-solving.

Can one of the ever-growing number of young and new SDLP members seize the opportunity created by Wednesday’s turbulence in his own constituency? If yes, McDonnell has reason for optimism.

Who’s in the mix?

Some have suggested Nichola Mallon, Political Special Advisor to Mark H Durkan, as an obvious contender. It seems clear however that Mallon is committed to North Belfast for exactly the same local dedication reasons that have helped the party’s success in South Belfast.

The front runner, perhaps, is Derry born Fearghal Mc Kinney. Though the former UTV Presenter’s initial transition from TV newsman to political salesman was less smooth than several of his former media colleagues predicted, McKinney’s current party colleagues have been steadily won over by the his embrace of McDonnell’s insistence on a local grassroots work ethic. By all accounts McKinney has been a very effective Party Organiser and Vice Chair of the SDLP. As current Chair of Castlereagh Branch of the SDLP, he has a platform for pitching his candidacy in the currency all thinking members of the party now understand: a now proven talent for effective membership recruitment and local service delivery. He’ll be hard to beat.

Claire Hanna, should she run, will have her supporters too. She has an opportunity to demonstrate her McDonnell Doctrine buy-in by exemplifying the political maturity absent so many of her colleagues in recent elections; she can make it clear that the party’s retention of the South Belfast MP seat is mission critical; a priority for the constituents of the area who deserve a representative who will, you know, actually represent all of them. Should Hanna walk that talk, providing further proof of the leader’s “party first” mentality filtering down across the branches, she’ll deserve a fair hearing.

But there is a dark horse. A reputedly brilliant young barrister, Caroline McNeill, 28, a native of Finaghy, currently works in a strategic role as a policy officer in Stormont. Will she role the dice? Is she too young? If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Whether McNeill has the smarts and the capacity to toil, party insiders have no doubt. But will she stake a claim? This is one more test of McDonnell’s talent recruitment drive. It’s not enough for the party to recruit intelligent and dedicated new members. The fresh members themselves need to impatiently and unapologetically remake the party anew – ‘waiting in line’ is for the takers not the makers. New members need to campaign, door-to-door, solving local problems relentlessly.

Shortly after he became leader I asked the SDLP leader for the point and purpose of his leadership. As the son of a farmer, his response was fitting. “The plants will only flower if the ground is worked properly – just don’t expect a bloom the morning after seeding.”

In fairness to McDonnell, if the contest for S.Belfast’s next MLA comes down to a challenge between McKinney and McNeill – two grafters, running on a mix of smarts, locally earned trust and, not least, a desire to use the seat as a platform for grassroots-driven change, then, whisper it, perhaps the seeds are taking root.