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!

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