Soapbox: Will the SDLP’s Achilles heel be the City that was once its bastion?

Hugh Brown is a Derry based reader, who occasionally writes Soapbox pieces for Slugger. He argues that the Achilles heel of Colum Eastwood speech was that it lacked policy detail and any explanation of where investment money will come from.

Following the SDLP AGM in Derry, we are no further forward in what the SDLP tend to do in the run-up to the May election.

Colum Eastwood’s demeanour reminded me of the Irish Labour Party before its decimation. His speech was filled with tepid brimstone and aimed at the gallery.

But are these the people he should be playing to?

The conference itself was small but lively. I attended to hear Paul Gosling speak, but his talk was to an empty room, poorly advertised by the SDLP. An interesting and valuable piece of work that went unheeded; a precedent perhaps?

As I sat in St Columb’s Hall, I was reminded of the old SDLP. This is a venue that they would have filled and garnered international attention, but, no. This new SDLP is a mixture of old and the not so old with very few fresh faces.

The fresh faces on stage have yet to prove themselves beyond the security blanket of their constituencies. Mark Durkan for example, has been voted the funniest MLA, an accolade many old guard don’t find so funny after his recent quip on abortion.

The SDLP AGM was arguably the smallest televised party conference the North has ever seen.

That Eastwood didn’t take any chances in drawing a red line in his speech was a weak move. It’s always important for a leader to use a platform to allow others outside of his comfort zone see where he intends to take the party.

The fact that the SDLP are now a Republican party in 2016 somewhat proves where the SDLP are at. A Republican Party willing to sit in Westminster and pledge allegiance to a Queen and go into opposition with the Ulster Unionists leading the way.

In other words, everything is disjointed.

Colum also stated that Sinn Fein has been in power for over 9 years and have delivered nothing for Derry.

This was met online by a Derry Twitter user (@Chris_Derry) stating that the SDLP have held a seat in Westminster for over 40 years and have delivered nothing for Derry. A valid point?

The SDLP are mired in the past and use the GFA as a battering ram for soundbites. Get over it.

The SDLP are running in treacle if they believe they can use this to build a future. It’s time they set out their stall instead of basing their arguments on negativity and Sinn Fein bashing; frankly, it makes them look weak.

Column Eastwood has said he intends to build an A5 and A6 with a costed alternative to the Fresh Start Agreement but hasn’t said how? The SDLP has also dropped any mention of the City Deal that they championed in Derry in 2015, probably because it was pie in the sky.

It looked good on paper, but again, with no actual substance; another precedent?

The core local argument of 12 March 2016 SDLP Conference was that “three into two” won’t go. Too true, but what are the SDLP doing to ensure this?

Actions speak louder than words, and all the SDLP have done is told their supporters they are in a good place. This is thin ice leadership; a risky strategy. The pictures with an aging John Hume won’t add to Colum’s advances.

If “three into two” does go in Foyle, will Mr Eastwood resign? Foyle is the SDLP’s war room, and if this battle is lost, is all lost?

When the leader’s debates are confirmed for mid-Aril, we will see a different SDLP: one with a manifesto, and going by this posturing, it will have an infinite amount of funding and one that will appeal to the republican unionists out there.

I mentioned on Twitter that Colum Eastwood’s task is one of Sisyphean proportions. The party is vulnerable and all the grandstanding and bluster from a Derry pulpit will be forgotten by the wider electorate.

It’s time for the SDLP to put up or shut up. Will the SDLP’s Achilles heel be the City that was once its bastion?
May 5th will answer that.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty