McQuillan to sue Durkan as hole gets deeper for the SDLP leader

The controversy over the now infamous ill-advised advert by the SDLP in the Irish News on Policing has taken a new twist as Alan McQuillan tonight announced his plans to sue the party leader, Mark Durkan.

The advert was taken out by the party on the day that Sinn Fein paid the Irish News and Belfast Telegraph newspapers to deliver a 4-page party supplement on the Policing issue. In response, the SDLP took out a full page advert in the Irish News. It is not known if the advert was a hastily prepared piece of work- which would fit in with the fact that Sinn Fein only publicly announced the party’s intention to carry the Policing supplement with the two main newspapers in the north of Ireland the day prior to their delivery (that being said, it is of course possible that someone within the Irish News informed the SDLP in good time of Sinn Fein’s intentions.)

However, the wording of the SDLP’s advert- signed by party leader, Mark Durkan- has provoked a considerable uproar within the Policing Board, with unionist parties and, naturally enough, with the two named individuals who had also applied for the PSNI Chief Constable post.

It’s difficult to see a way out of this one for the SDLP that doesn’t involve a humiliating public climbdown, given that, whatever the party’s intentions, the wording does appear to indicate that the party supported discriminating against individual applicants from a RUC background. Here’s the key parts of the advert:

“Against the wishes of Tony Blair and [former Northern secretary] John Reid we made sure the policing board showed [former RUC and later PSNI chief constable] Ronnie Flanagan the door,” wrote Mr Durkan.

“Against the wishes of Tony Blair and John Reid we ensured that the policing board appointed Hugh Orde – and not a policeman from the old RUC order.”

Like so much here, this controversy needs to be viewed from two different perspectives- not least because of the electoral significance of its outworkings for the SDLP.

It will hardly come as a surprise for me to point out that, taken on its own, the advert will not have caused the slightest annoyance to the SDLP’s electorate, nor in fact the broader nationalist community. To suggest that the SDLP was responsible for ensuring no RUC figure replaced Ronnie Flanagan at the helm of the PSNI is hardly an unpopular assertion. Furthermore, to incur the wrath of unionist politicians and the two former RUC figures who competed with Hugh Orde for the post will not cause many ripples within nationalism, due to the lingering hostility of the nationalist community to the RUC and all it stood for (from a nationalist perspective.)

However, the SDLP must be worried about how this issue is playing with the constituency of voters to which they have spent several years courting in their vain efforts to hold off the Sinn Fein advance: namely, the ‘middle ground’ voter (though I hate the term, I’ll use it for the purposes of clarity here.)

The SDLP have spent a considerable period of time attempting to woo Alliance/ Women’s Coalition voters to bolster their first preference vote, and they have also sought to galvanise support in the form of voting transfers from within unionism in their efforts to compete with Sinn Fein.

For this reason, the timing of this very public spat could not have been worse for the SDLP. For the party to pick a fight with unionism over the most sensitive issue within both communities does not augur well for their efforts to attract the transfers necessary in many constituencies to achieve their electoral ambitions in just a few weeks time.