SDLP Conference (updated with a couple of interviews)

I caught up with SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie on this morning just after she had finished rehearsing her leaders speech in the empty hall.

1.30pm Having escaped from the conference to the side of a humid swimming pool, I reflect that the Ramada Hotel wasn’t anywhere near as well attended as their February conference in Newcastle. It does seem strange that with the election in May, the SDLP didn’t just postpone again until February and use the conference as a boost before the election?

Red dresses were in! No poppies in sight. Cute political children abounded. Quite a few beards – perhaps too many for a party not wanting to be full of “bearded gurus”. A fair number of younger faces in their twenties scattered about the hall. An enormous number of exhibitors. In an age of austerity, the new freebie of choice turns out to be plastic water bottles.

A lot of the rhetoric was critical of other parties rather than promoting and sharing the SDLP’s own vision. That said, they did seem to be in a listening mood and while this morning’s panel naturally boiled the CSI ocean, it did allow opinions and reflections from outside the SDLP’s normal comfort zone.

Back in February I wasn’t sure after the conference what the SDLP really stood for. This conference seemed to present a more coherent picture. They’re anti-SF, listening to the business community and working on more economic proposals that the other parties will steal, as angry as everyone else about education (though that didn’t translate into bums on seats for the 9.30am session) and they are keen to warn the media that there’ll be a grass roots surge in time for May.

They’re also keen to wrestle the United Ireland agitator baton away from Sinn Fein and yet soften the approach by educating unionists why this isn’t such a terrible idea. Not sure how well that hard/soft approach will help win votes and transfers in South Belfast, South Down and up in Derry.

12.35pm And there’s more.

Sound bite moment for the TV cameras: “A First Minister who refuses to meet the Queen because the Pope might be there and a Deputy First Minister who won’t meet the Pope because the Queen might be there. How is that representing our government on the big stage? They should be ashamed.”

“And we now have the dissidents. And let’s be clear what that is. Dissidents aren’t some new social or political phenomena; they are the direct legacy of Sinn Fein’s failed war. When are they going to admit that what is wrong now was always wrong.”

Referring to SDLP’s 18-month old paper on “New Priorities in Difficult Times” she says that DUP and SF’s “new ideology can be called ‘Magpie Economics’ – they want for shiny new ideas produced by the SDLP and then fly off and claim them as their own.”

More pointing to “Declan and his team will shortly launch our latest paper” on the economy.

There was a warning that OFMDFM’s “cooking up what I can only describe as a ‘community slush fund’ so that under the guise of helping disadvantaged communities – which is DSD’s area of expertese, not theirs – they will be directing money to those groups they like most” could ultimately lead to court action.

Calls on SDLP to be seen as “the part of ideas … confident and committed in our mission … never deterred by criticism or fear”.

“We do not need to be a Party of bearded gurus, trendy intellectuals or the darlings of the media or the blogosphere. We just need to be right. And we need to be determined …Hard work will do the rest.”

And I’m off.

Standing room only in the hall for Margaret Ritchie's speech

noon Margaret Ritchie enters the hall to music and standing ovation. Funny moment when Alasdair McDonnell nips in just after her, following her up the middle aisle of the hall. Like a page boy. (Link to her speech and to the BBC coverage – though since the speech started earlier than timetabled, the beginning is missing!)

Applause for comments about Fearghal McKinney’s contribution in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. “It was something of a baptism of fire – but Fearghal will be back, stronger than ever.” Not sure how that squares up with not being selected for FST?

While recognising “that in the long term there may well be significant political realignment on this island” the SDLP “have ruled it out for now”.

Addressing SDLP/Sinn Fein electoral cooperation: “How can we enter any tribal or sectarian pacts that would simply undermine everything we stand for?” Then she ad libbed “How could I look Norman Hamilton in the eye if we went down that line?”

Has a go at Martin McGuinness and his refusal to go along to events attended by members of the Royal Family. Ritchie says that when she met her, the Queen was “not the least bit threatening”.

Section of speech focussing on Irish Unity. “We in the SDLP remain absolutely, unambiguously committed to a United Ireland.” (pause) (crowd applaud a little too late – telling perhaps?) “It is, without qualification, our number one political objective. Can I be any more definitive about that?”

She challenges “Irish nationalists … to make the case to unionists in a way that has never been done before. What happens to the NHS … the social welfare system or the police service?”

More knocking Sinn Fein – an enormous amount of this speech is anti-SF as opposed to pro-SDLP.

“I’m told Gerry is now trying to wriggle away from his promise of unity by 2016. He’s claiming he never said it. So is he saying that Martin McGuinness is fibbing about his? But then, ability to remember what he did in the past is not Gerry’s best known quality.”
11.40am Next up Alex Atwood,starting his speech by sending sympathy to PSNI officers injured last night in Belfast. Referring to his five and a half months as minister, he refers to the NI Executive as “a poverty of imagination”.

Calling for reforms in prisons and justice and explains that “the essence of the NI Water story is a minister who was in government but didn’t know how to be in power”

11.30am Hall now packed, and the exhibition area emptied. Big standing ovation for John Hume – winner of RTE’s Ireland’s Greatest. Miriam O’Callaghan now speaking.

10.55am It’s a much smaller conference than February. Just over 100 in the hall listening to the A Shared Society panel discussion, chaired by Conall McDevitt. Presbyterian Moderator Dr Norman Hamilton sitting alongside CRC’s Duncan Morrow, Prof Colin Harvey (QUB law), Tom Daly (former Ulster GAA president) and Dolores Kelly.

A Shared Society at SDLP conference

Duncan Morrow’s been the most vocal so far – “We have more pilots than Ryanair” – calling for systemic initiatives to promote greater sharing. He also suggest that while “Poverty creates sectarianism” it’s also true that “sectarianism creates poverty”.

In response to a question from Belfast Lord Mayor Patrick Convery about young people, Morrow asks why many school and youth facilities close over the summer.

Norman Hamilton got a round of applause after a contribution

I’m not coming at this from the chattering middle clerical classes. I say it from my heart as much as my head. It’s absolutely clear that every year when it comes to parades and interfaces it’s a totally zero sum game …

There is a specific task for civil and political leadership from the end of the parading season to engage in a culture of hospitality.

I want to hear from nationalist communities that loyalist and unionist culture matters and not just something to be managed. And I want to hear from loyalist communities that it is important that nationalist views are expressed.

(I talked to Norman immediately after the panel ended.)

10am The first session this morning is looking at Education. After a ten or more minute delay, they started with three resolution criticising the current interim transfer tests.

There were more outside the hall …

SDLP conference - Saturday morning - first session - Education - outside the hall

… than inside.

SDLP conference - Saturday morning - first session - Education

9.30am About 20 people in the hall, a few folk on the stage, but no sign of starting. The ‘L’ in SDLP stands for late!


  • abucs

    Perhaps they were waiting for the bell to ring?

  • Alan N/ARDS

    What exactly does a New Ireland for All mean? Is it a new flag – anthem – constitution – police force – intregated education etc. Is it out with the old and in with the new. Look forward to hearing what it means.

  • Charminator

    No applause for the ‘united Ireland’ waffle…. haha, embarrassing. The dying days of the new IPP.

  • There was applause … just not quite as quick as the timing required. Talking to party members afterwards, I picked up that not all of them would put UI as number one on their agenda.

    Though I missed the afternoon panel which was focussed solely on UI, so not sure whether a variety of views were shared there.

  • G O’Neill

    A conference from a party in complete and utter freefall.

    For a party that like to think it has all the answers how do they justify spending 90% of their conference attacking SF? eg . Why change a strategy that has been going so well for the past number of elections……

    Cheap dig at Gerry Adams aswel that will play well with all the Unionists in SDLP heartlands of South down and Derry but might not play so well with any wavering Nationalist support but then again we are in ‘post- nationalism’ according to Irelands greatest.

    Special praise for Fergal McKinney who has succesfully collapsed the SDLP votes in FST and almost cost SF a seat. Well done indeed.

    I can’t believe that someone actually thinks that spending a day moaning and blaming SF//the Executive(which they are part of!!) will actually help them win back the votes they have lost. Oh well when they lose more votes in March they can console themselves with the fact everybody else stole all their ideas.

    Who are they trying to appeal to anymore

  • Séamus Rua

    The whole Sinn Féin fixation is hard to fathom really.

    Surely someone in the SDLP can see that they were strongest when they played their own game?

    Reducing this once great party to yet another anti-Sinn Féin pressure group is just sad.

    Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s vote will rise!

  • Rocketeer

    Thoroughly unimpressed…although I do look forward to seeing tough little Margaret land the bold dynamic duo, aka Robbo and Marty in the slammer! LOL

    This woman is a disaster!

  • mike scott

    At least she didn’t cry. It is true though that the fixation with SF does them no good at all. She also tried to shake off the Irish Labour ties by declaring the SDLP to be part of one big Irish political family. The young Labourites who run the SDLP these days wont like being lumped in with FF.

  • redhugh78

    At least she didn’t cry……lol.

  • White Horse

    A feisty speech that put the Provos in their rightful place. Indeed what is the Provos’ strategy on Irish unity? Clearly she is right.

    And she’s right about Mitchel McLaughlin’s failure to notify Adams and McGuinness about moving Irish unity from 2016 to 2021 and his lonliness on economic issues.

    She also put the DUP in its proper place and sent good signals to the UUP.

    A good base to continue the fightback.

  • Ulick

    West-Brit, partitionist irrelevants. The sooner Ritchie, Duckan et al scampered back to their London gravy train and leave the rest of us to get on with it the better.

  • tyrone taggart

    White horse you ask “what is the Provos’ strategy on Irish unity?”

    It hopefully will not be same as her line of:

    “in the event of Unity, the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, including power-sharing, would remain in place.”

    How the hell does she know what it will be like?

    That expensive building with expensive MLA should be shut down to start with in a United Ireland.

  • Kevin Barry

    If you’re trying to get people out to vote for you amongst your key demographic (nationalists in this case), you have only one solid way of doing this imho; by showing others what ideas you have rather than dumping on your opponent constantly.

    Not only is this not a vote winner in my opinion, it’s also counter to some of the stuff that has been said above about having a talk about a new Ireland. This strategy just seems petty and intellectually bankrupt, like a poor nationalist version of the Tea Party

  • stewart1

    It does seem strange that a large proportion of their conference centred on attacking the shinners.

    I don’t really see the point personally.

    Surely it would have been much more constructive to unveil some economic initiatives or forward thinking policies?

    It all sounds quite redundant and stagnant

  • aodhan o paisley

    The sdlp are coming back they are offering a positive alternative. Richie gave good examples we need more specifics .

    Design of conference very good we need more interactive discussions at all party conferences.People are tired of confrontational politics.

    I hope they post it all on youtube

  • White Horse

    It is clear that she has made some republicans nervous. Good for her.

  • mike scott

    a pity she was only able to refer to a forthcoming document on the economy, rather than unveiling it.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Actually I saw two poppies today. One worn by the journalist who was to the right of Ken Reid. The other worn by Jim Wells of the DUP……yes that Jim Wells who walked thru the bar and joked with a SDLP MLA…..”its ok Im not attending your conference .Im just in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Probably an exotic species of duck was nesting nearby.
    I was also on “poppy watch” and quite possibly an English born member might have been wearing one of those metal ones.
    There were actually a few references to remembrance. Alex Attwoods uncle from Cork who fought in WW2 and great uncle from Nottingham who died in WW1 and Alex is apparently going off to some monument next week.
    Actually during the Unity Session… seemed that people were lining up to shw off their attachments. I was hoping someone might say how proud they were of their four uncles who flew in the Battle of Britain…….Heinrich, Hans, Fritz and Otto. Its the way I tell them.
    But I did wonder if this was a subtle hint that poppies are on the agenda……a dilemna ……move the conference to December.
    Not a big fan of these sessions where Panels replace debate……I am too old school. Duncan Morrow hogged the CSI discussion. But I think Dr Hamiltons best quote was actually theres no such thing as “.value free education”
    Disappointed in the Unity Discussion. The southern speakers were pathetic. Hanafin left early as Ireland-South Africa playing rugby is so important. Hayes was a blueshirt and Tuffy (? Im too tired to look up her name was awful. Surprised to be on a panel her first words were that she had never really thought about a United Ireland…but Austin Currie lives near her.
    A couple of times Ferghal McKinney asked her to adjust her mic but as the session wore on he realised she was so useless that not being heard was an advantage for her.
    Not a big fan of ex loyalists paramilitaries being on a SDLP panel. Im biased …….loyalist paramilitaries murdered an SDLP friend of my dads. That was uncomfortable for me and many “old school”.
    I kept thinking if the balance about dialogue was right. I suppose it depends on who is on the platform.
    Margarets speech was excellent. Well crafted. Well delivered.
    Not reviewed the footage but my notes show “DFP has bungled PFI” (constanent please Carol) and something about now that DUP and SF are inside tent, there is no need for the Govts to humour them. Harsh. Also harsh on Mitchell McLaughlin. Bit of knockabout. I also have the words “Darlings of the Blogosphere” followed by three exclamation marks……..which I hope was a blow to people who think that Blogging is important…… (actually that reminds me…I must update mine before I go to bed).

    The comment about fewer people than Slieve Donard? Well that was a leadership election.
    The Executive Committee……I note from the booklet several have southern connexions so a genuine all Ireland Party. But 18 nominations for 14 places struck me as low. And too many had careers I had never heard of. But then Im very very old.
    Lots of young faces. And lots of noble aged warriors too . There seemed to be a scarcity of people of good sensible age of people in their prime…..which is coincidently my age.
    And the young people I heard speak had something worthwhile to say and the talent to say it.
    And I missed out on my freebies. Id scouted the Tables and spotted a few things to take home and give the kids for Christmas……..but then I forgot about them.

  • mike scott

    FJH – eh, did you have a drink??

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Oh just to add……John Hume. Moving……and well deserved. And it was honour to be in the room. I had intended to glance around at the journos in back of room to se if they had joined the standing ovation.
    Anybody know?

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I have never ever touched an alcoholic drink in my life and never will. On that subject I am at one with Rev Ian Paisley.
    Incidently the “fork buffet” was £7.95 and if you wanted a coke it was EXTRA. Bad show,

  • Many of them did – but you’ll have to guess whether they just couldn’t see or whether they were showing respect as well. Suspect the latter.

  • The sandwiches in the bar were good though.

  • Nordie Northsider

    I know that we’re told not to bring personality into this, but I’ve just saw Ritchie give an interview to BBC’s The Politics Show. Jesus! She’s the kind of person that can wind you up even on points you agree with her about.

  • Ulick

    Hehe – Hannafin told Sam Smyth earlier on TodayFM that she only got to listen to the rugby on the radio. Doesn’t bode well for the Stoops when even their invited guests are telling porkies for an excuse to get away.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    She may not have reached Dublin in time so hardly a lie.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    iI wasnt convinced about her in February. Personally I would not have voted for her as Leader of SDLP but then again thats true of a lot of SDLP people who were there yesterday.
    I chose my words carefully last night describing it as excellent, well crafted and well delivered. That does not mean I agree with every word……or more particuarly the “ambience” or the “nuance”. Theres a nuance in there which maybe I should really watch on video clip but frankly most people in the room only get one chance to hear the speech. On Monday it will be analysed.
    Certainly as I left the room, the journos were buttonholing key MLA/strategists to write their story for them basically.
    Journalists have actually lost the art of hearing a speech and working out what it means. They have so little confidence in their own ability that they need to grab hold of someone to explain it….and disgracefully they address people by their first name, which is bang out of order for professionals. Id really love some MLA to turn round and say “thats MISTER XXXX to you”.
    If a MLA is doing his her job right they should not let get journos get too close.
    And if a journalist is doing his job right he cant be on first name terms with politicians.

    To my mind…..a MLAs first responsibility is to his/her electorate and to the Party in a “Conference” situation. Journalists dont come into the equation at all.

  • Charminator

    I agree entirely with Séamus Rua.

    The whole Sinn Féin fixation is senseless. It is leading the party to oblivion in that a huge, possibly unbridgeable, chasm is developing between the SDLP and the vast vast swathe of the Nationalist electorate. Slapping Sinn Féin in such a neurotic way may make sense where they are a marginal entity, but they’re now the core Nationalist party.
    As Séamus Rua has said, “Reducing this once great party to yet another anti-Sinn Féin pressure group is just sad”. ‘Tis and there’s precious little to be done about it.

  • iluvni

    I felt myself actually willing Ritchie to finish each sentence during her tortured interview on The Politics Show. Come on, luv, you can do it, never mind about the content, just get the words out of your mouth.

    Truly jaw-droppingly dreadful.

  • Ulick

    Aye maybe, just as likely she couldn’t get away quick enough. I just hope she remembered to pick up the pay cheque before scurrying away down the M1 – opportunites for a national disgrace such as her being severely limited these days. Telling all the same that the Stoops are so detached from the national reality they think it acceptable to have her there in the first place. I guess Mark and Margaret can’t get the Irish editions in the Westminster Palace bars and reading rooms.

  • slug

    I think that Margaret Ritchie has had speaking training over the summer.

  • FJH – I think you’re being hard on the journalists. They’d been reading an embargoed copy of the speech for a couple of hours, highlighting the interesting bits, and waiting to hear how the party audience reacted. I’m pretty sure that most of the papers were getting an interview with Margaret immediately after the speech, so that’s why they would have been rushing out.

    Slug – Training and the use of a teleprompter and a full read through in advance to get the timing and pace of it.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I think those people pre-disposed to find fault with Ms Ritchies speech will inevitably talk it down.
    Those pre-disposed to thinking it was brilliant will naturally say it was great.
    Those of us pre-disposed to sit and listen and hear what she had to say would have probably scored it well. At times she did seem to “lose” a word but this was I think down to not taking in breath rather than actual nerves.
    I didnt watch her on the Politics Show. I wouldnt watch that show if I was in hospital attached to a drip. Awful show.

  • john

    Was there no talk of Peter Craig`s spat with S.F. in Down Council when he told a fellow Councillor to go back to his Foreign Country namely the Republic of Ireland at least Peter excepts its a Foreign Country ??

  • John East Belfast

    “No poppies in sight”

    It is a pity the SDLP have no Trevor Ringland type theratening to resign unless Ritchie wears a poppy.

    !We in the SDLP remain absolutely, unambiguously committed to a United Ireland.” (pause) (crowd applaud a little too late – telling perhaps?) “It is, without qualification, our number one political objective. Can I be any more definitive about that?””

    How can any intellignet person make a comment like that considering the sorrow state of the ROI economy – not a bit of wonder people were slow to clap

  • john Killyleagh

    Well said John how can they exspect to reach out to the Unionist Community if they cant even wear a Poppy ??

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    While Ms Ritchies speech was well delivered she has not perhaps mastered the art of the “cues” for applause. Or maybe her audience has not mastered it.
    But she was much better than any previous occasion on which I have seen her, usually short efforts.
    But there was something very …………womanly……(and please dont attack me for sexism) speech which was actually very refreshing.
    It was not high octane…as a mans speech would have been……and we need more women in politics. Of course the UUP and DUP dont actually know what a speech from a woman sounds like.
    On the slightly downside…it could be a tad……..ahem…”waspish” in a way a mans speech would not have been.

  • redhugh78

    ‘But there was something very …………womanly……(and please dont attack me for sexism) speech which was actually very refreshing.’-

    aye, ‘womanly’ in the sense it reminded me of my mother reading me a bed time story.

    Leaving aside the actual content of the speech, which amounted to nothing more than a SF bash, the actual delivery of the speech was cringe worthy to say the least.

    Someone above posted that Margaret had taken lessons on speech, well if I was her I’d be looking my money back although if the lessons were to overcome a stutter, then I suppose the money was well spent, but only just.

  • Was her voice coach the leader of the Daleks? More torture in her delivery than in Gitmo! 😉

  • UndecidedNationalist

    I think Ritchie performed well. I have a funny feeling that the SDLP will make a comback in the next Assembly election. I was one of the voters who moved to Sinn Féin after the departure of the SDLP greats and now I can see myself leaning back towards the SDLP. I’m concerned about the lack of progress in Stormont. I can see the SDLP appealing to many of the people who are feeling the pinch of the downturn hardest. They seem to be the only party with a clear plan for the economy and I think we should give them a chance to see what they can do.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Thanks redhugh…..your point took the sexist charge off me and onto you.
    Thanks for that.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Alan in Belfast.
    Me? A tad hard on journalists? I challenge you to look thru my posts on Slugger and find any evidence that I am a tad hard on journalists.

  • laura123

    made some republicans nervous? ha! it takes more than a bitta drivel from Ritchie and a twitch of the face to unnerve republicans! lol

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Incidently I notice on our little sidebar that Eamonn Mallie ….says there is little coverage of the SDLP conference in the Sunday papers.
    “The Party is struggling to re-assert itself” he says
    I dont buy newspapers myself so I cant comment on that.
    But did anybody actually see Mr Mallie in attendance yesterday?

  • ruralvoice

    I was talking to him briefly. he was in foul form,so i’m not going to take any of his criticism of the party to heart.

  • Rory Carr

    I’ve long suspected that Thatcher, with her lack of concern for humanity, might have been leader of the Daleks and Ritchie’s emulation of Mrs. T’s voice-softening technique certainly indicates a sisterly admiration at least.

  • He arrived after a while on Saturday morning wearing an eye-catching pin-stripe jacket. Surprised you weren’t blinded by it!

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    And he stayed? I did not see him all day.

  • He probably left at lunchtime. A lot of people seemed to be milling around the bar downstairs in the afternoon. The gossip was excellent!

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Alanin Belfast
    Left at lunchtime?
    Pin striped jacket?
    Down Royal?

  • Alan N/ARDS

    A lot of people are being hard on Margaret Ritchie. I happen to like her. I also liked Durkan as well. I was glad to see her winning the Westminster election instead of that dreadful Ruane woman.

    I know that some unionists in South Down voted for her to keep Ruane out. She probably won’t get their votes at assembly elections but Westminster is a different story.

    I believe the SDLP should really catch themselves on regarding a United Ireland. I don’t believe they have any chance of convincing Unionists but I do believe the majority of the SDLP are genuine about reaching out to unionists. A recent poll ( in the Sunday Times) in the Republic found that only 56% of that country want UI. The majority of the 56% lived in rural areas. It’s not really on the radar in the South. People are more concerned about paying their bills.

    I was in Dublin two weeks ago. A couple of friends from there who are Civil servants were telling me of the anger among civil servants about government ministers “swanning around” in their chauffeur driven cars while the ordinary people are taking on extra jobs to pay their bills. A UI is the last thing on their minds. They would say it’s a northern obsession.