More detail on the Espie resignation on the eve of a local constituency meeting tomorrow evening. It’s by no means indicative of a crisis. Espie insists for instance that he will not be crossing the floor to join Sinn Fein as his former colleague Billy Leonard did. Party headquarters ascribe it to internal reforms, and its true that if the SDLP is going to re-engage its lost middle class voters, it will have to push through in some muscular internal reform. Keep an eye out for further resignations.
His press statement opens:
“The party today is a shadow of the party I joined based on the founding principles of democratic nationalism. The party then was genuinely rooted in communities; it gave value and understanding to the worries, fears, hope’s and aspiration to the electorate who were happy to vote for and empower Nationalist representation in public office. The party at that time represented the street politick of ordinary working men and women unlike the boardroom politico it has turned out to be. Political leadership lacks a distinct charisma; policy is progressively lost to outsiders who have little or no political sharpness. These same people ignore the party membership throughout the North”.
Eddie Easpie’s Resignation letter to Patricia Lewsley:
29th March 2006.
Dear Party Chair,
I am writing you to submit my resignation as, Party officer, Vice-Chair of the SDLP, Chairperson of Elections and Organisation, the SDLP Executive, all groups and sub-committees including European , U.S, Policy, Vision and Communications and from my position as Chair of the Mid-Ulster Constituency Council effective, 12p.m. midnight Wednesday March 29th 2006.
I do so after prolonged consultations with family, friends, associates and colleagues. The baggage of my upbringing included a genuine obligation to give something back to the Nationalist electorate in my community and all the way through Northern Ireland. My devotion to my fellow countrymen and women and their values was the most powerful objective in my political aspiration. As formerly stated, for a considerable period I have expending a lot of time and energy promoting the SDLP throughout the Country. Regretfully it is my belief that I can no longer give that continued commitment at any level within the party.
The party I resign from today is a shadow of the party I joined based on the founding principles of democratic nationalism. The party then was genuinely rooted in communities; it gave value and understanding to the worries, fears, anxieties, hope’s, aspiration and desires of the electorate who voted for and empowered our political representatives in public office. The party at that time represented the street politick of ordinary working men and women unlike the boardroom politico it has turned out to be. Today the same level of elected representative dedication is missing in many areas. Political leadership lacks a distinct charisma, policy is progressively lost to outsiders who harp back to the long-gone days and ways of the past, it is my opinion these outsiders have little or no political sharpness, they are stuck in the past. These same people, having gained influence, ignore the party membership in branches, constituencies, committees, sub committees and various groups, even the party executive.
This is not the SDLP I joined. In my opinion, it has become polluted by obstinate representatives, corrupted by quick fix self-interested solutions and ruined by pig-headed individuals displaying complete indiscipline. I am no longer prepared to preside over, or have any part in the unremitting demise over the SDLP nor will I allow myself to be corrupted polluted or caged. I will be no ones crony nor part of some narrow minded self promoting agenda or a cabal designed by some ego centred individual whose purpose is to serve their own interest, as opposed to the wider interest of democratic Nationalism, so long as the leadership cabals refuse to acknowledge the problems that exist and refuse to address them this demise will continue. The party missed an excellent opportunity in May 2005 for revival, when, after the dust had settled in the local and Westminster elections the membership perceived the dawning of a new political era, that being, the Durkan – McDonnell approach to modern Nationalism. Almost one year on the membership’s justifiable expectation has not been realised. Apathy has replaced hope, lethargy has replaced aspiration and indifference has replaced what would otherwise have been resurgence. My sole interest was, and is, in the promotion of Nationalist as a peaceful political concept, for the good of all. A Nationalism which I envisaged would have been at peace with the electorate, with itself and with other parties.
The SDLP will not be a serious contender in the predicted Assembly elections next year or in any election subsequently because it refuses to study hard lessons from the past; in particular, from the Assembly elections of 2003, to date, it has failed miserably to do so. Instead of the full review, anyone would logically have expected with radical reforms following in quick succession. The Party could have, and should have, seized the lifeline thrown to it in local government and Westminster elections of May 2005 and begun the sweeping transformation essential if it wanted to repossess the extensive ground lost since 1994.
Little strategic direction exists within the party, at any level, and what there is – appears to come from a tiny unrepresentative and inexplicable group? Their briefings appear to be based on the recent political state of affairs and are not part of any longer term electoral strategy. The most noticeable predicament with the SDLP as it is presently constituted is a continual shortfall in communicating grassroots problems to the party leadership, conversely motivating the membership to engage with the party at election times, is increasingly seen as labouring to the privileged and elite. At the centre of the SDLPs difficulties is the detachment between the ordinary membership on the ground and political leadership. This interaction function should be at the public face and at the hub of everything the SDLP does, strategy is acceptable, but unless it is received and understood by the proper audiences, it changes nobody.
The situation where some senior staff at ‘Head Quarters’ in collaboration with cabals who run the party disregards the opinions and needs of grassroots members is indefensible. Common courtesy costs nothing but mean’s a lot to these dedicated members across the North. The party team at all level, needs to be unified, cohesive and consistent, with a clear plan for the present and for the future. Noticeably, this is not presently the case.
The Party did not engage in any proficient specialized study as would be expected in a review. In the absence of such reviews, the only real activity was that of the Election and Organisation committee whose members gave freely of their time and expertise based on individual commitment. Those involved gave an incomparable devotion and dedicated service to the party. This commitment is carried out without salary, not even; out of pocket, expenses are ever re reimbursed. Despite dispute and disorder not being of their formation, the treatment and respect these people receive is non-existent or imaginary, the hard work seldom appreciated, worse: at times, the effort is completely frowned upon all the way up to and including leadership. This, to me is not only deplorable, it is unforgivable, and the idea that some self-styled party personalities having asked for and receiving off the services of this small band of dedicated activists.
The time and skills of the devoted have been atrociously justified as having cost nothing, the exertion is deemed worthless or has no actual worth or benefit when the result or decision is out of support, with the gratuitous self significant idol or controller of the local organisation. The systematic exploitation of the party decision making bodies branches, constituencies, and committees all the way through to the executive committee by individuals should never have been sanctioned. Family connections and those with careers close to party reps continue to deadlock crucial fundamental reforms to the detriment of the party. Members involved in various groups, those whose opinions have added significance to Nationalism who have contributed to the highest degree are becoming completely disenchanted by the current state of affairs and a few have confided to me their intention to move on and move away from the party.
My defiance must not be taken flippantly if the party intends to continue in existence in anything like its present form. The electorate who previously voted for the party and who now choose to stay at home, probably will not return. In the background of vagueness and instability, those who most intensely oppose reforms have thrived; the destroyer and the political dinosaurs have taken advantage of political inactivity by generating artificial hope through unfilled promises. All that dialogue about growth, reform, on party building and return to electoral supremacy is alright for specifying once a year at party conference but in the real world, in a growing number Nationalist areas all the way through the country the SDLP is in electoral decline.
As the situation stand things are not going to improve electoral and unless the central organisation is overhauled fundamentally. The current Assembly group of eighteen selected members of the legislative assembly is unlikely to be returned, when this happens and given the ongoing proposals in the RPA, the percentage share Nationalist councillors currently enjoy will plummet appreciably. The knock-on affect will have implications through to Westminster and Europe. The fact remains that a large proportion of the Nationalist people in the North will never and could never vote for Sinn Fein. The SDLP ought to be perfectly positioned to secure the votes of these people, but unless the overhaul begins with immediate effect. This opportunity will be lost. This unpalatable reality is being ignored and while it is being ignored, the downfall will continue unabated. This is not something I find acceptable nor will I put up with the crisis management approach any longer. Playing head-in-the-sand politics is not for me.
Finally and in conclusion, I would like to thank the many people, within the party, who had worked with me in various projects during these last few months and years. I realise that in taking this difficult decision some may feel disappointed, surprised even a little hurt. If the party were too harness the ability and aspirations of its members on the basis on which it was founded it could regain its rightful place at the forefront on Nationalism. Everything worthwhile has an expiry date. Trends, like people, come and go. It is now my turn. Being unable to commit further to the SDLP organisation, to fundamentally restructure the party, because of entrenched attitudes from self persevering personalities, I now leave the office I was elected to serve. In going, let me state I will continue to stand for the rights of everyone who asks for my assistance – in whatever capacity I am able to.
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