Conall McDevitt answers your questions on the SDLP leadership…

And now we have the second, in what I hope will be a series of four ‘interviews’ based on Questions provided by the Slugger readership (you can see the original thread here):

1) What would you do during your first 30 days as leader to start rebuilding the SDLP? (Original question from ‘Sean Og’)

If I become leader of the SDLP, my plans for renewal and rebuilding will take effect immediately. Within the first 30 days, I will convene a Public Representatives Group meeting which will meet every second month, and will be a key forum for political engagement, debate and strategy formulation. This group will comprise of every elected representative across the party, and will ensure that all representatives are engaged in party decision-making and are given support from the party centrally.

I also plan to enhance grass roots engagement with ordinary members, convening a Central Council meeting on the months that the Public Representatives Group do not meet. It is essential that the leadership engages regularly with grassroots activists to ensure that members’ ideas are heard, and that we can collectively decide on political direction.

To increase membership, I will develop my plans for a major recruitment drive. I will make it easier for people to become members of the SDLP, by implementing a £1 joining fee for students, the unemployed and senior citizens. We need to show people that we both need them as members and need them as activists. New members, bringing new ideas and energy, are crucial to the future success of the SDLP. We are also fortunate to have our long-serving and dedicated members for sound advice and strong support. Every member – whether life-ling or newly recruited – will have a role to play under my leadership. I will also conduct a skills audit of the party membership. SDLP members come from all walks of life and bring to the party a huge skills resource into which we must tap.

I believe we need to set out a strong case for new politics here so that we can carve out clear space in which the SDLP can flourish. With endorsement from the Party, I will;

• Deliver partnership government that can truly deliver;
• Ensure much greater accountability to the people;
• Provide for constructive opposition.

Under my leadership, we will go into next election offering voters compelling reasons to put us back at the centre of government. We will show all those who have become disconnected from us or disillusioned with politics here that the SDLP can again deliver for them.

Whilst the first thirty days are important to the new leader, the SDLP must continue to act with urgency and return to our campaigning spirit, upon which the party was born.

2) What is the best way for SDLP to reverse the marginalisation it has been experiencing over the past few years? In other words, where do you see the prospective votes coming from, and how might SDLP attract them? (Original question from ‘polsenthus’)

At present, almost half of the population here are not voting, and so there is a silent majority out there who are not connecting with any message at present. Our party has also lost votes to others, who would naturally have been SDLP voters. As party leader, I would ensure that we articulate our message with clarity and simplicity, and offer the electorate a genuine alternative to carve up politics which are stagnating governance in this region, and preventing real change for the people who are being let down by the status quo.

However, in order to do this, we need to offer compelling reasons as to why prospective voters should vote SDLP, and I believe that means we need to fundamentally examine the institutions which are currently facilitating this stagnation. The current arrangement has brought stability and peace; however it is now 13 years since the Good Friday Agreement, and I believe that we are entering into a new phase of politics in which the stability of the institutions is no longer under threat. The opportunity to create a new political space and review the current institutions offers the SDLP the opportunity to propose a new structure which would increase accountability, and ensure much more effective governance, still built on power sharing and which safeguards the principle of equality. This would appeal to much of the electorate who feel let down by the Assembly, and give the SDLP a real opportunity to hold the government to account, or affect real change within the government.

We also need to reconnect with our grassroots, and once more become a campaigning party across every town and village in the North. It is instinctive in the SDLP to speak up for groups and people right across the community, and it is this campaigning spirit which must again come to the fore.

3) What three key reforms would you implement to improve the SDLP’s electoral and political fortunes? (Original question from ‘Langdale’)

I would implement a series of reforms, however the key issues which I believe need addressed with immediate effect are internal organisation, a review of the institutions of government and establish an “Ireland 21 Campaign.”

In relation to internal organisation, I believe there are too many layers of bureaucracy within the party which ultimately has the effect of the leadership being too far removed from the grassroots, and many, including elected representatives, feeling disconnected from the party. I will strip away the existing structure and put a flatter, simpler one in place, which will shift the emphasis away from talking to each other to talking to the people we want to vote for us. I will also use this opportunity to address financial problems within the party and establish a committee which will bring together people with expertise in finance to oversee party expenditure in an audit, and ensure that money is being spent effectively.

I have discussed the review of the institutions above, and I believe that this is key to reasserting the SDLP back at the heart of the politics of this region, as reform of the system would allow for much greater accountability. At present, we are not seeing effective or productive governance, evident in the fact that no Programme for Government has yet been established despite the fact that the election took place six months ago. As it stands, many people are staying at home rather than coming out to vote as they do not feel that they can affect change in the current set up. We need to challenge our institutions to make them work for the people, and not those in power. A more open and accountable government is the way forward in establishing this.

As leader, I will launch a new 10 year campaign – “the Ireland 21 Campaign” which would seek to build consensus across Ireland on key issues of common interest, including unity, national remembrance and reconciliation, North-South Development, and political realignment. In this campaign, we will engage with all parties in Ireland, with the shared goal of developing new thinking for a new country in this new century. Our “Ireland 21 Campaign” can feed positively into the long-promised North South Parliamentary Forum, but will also work freely to promote SDLP principles and policies.

Separate to this, I will organise the party throughout Ireland, not to contest elections but to establish support groups to ensure that our message can be every heard in every province on this island.

3) Taking this point as Day One, what is significantly different between your outlook for Northern Ireland and that of Sinn Fein? (Original question from ‘thedissenter’)

Under my leadership, the SDLP will articulate a clear message that will challenge the status quo and seek to redefine the political landscape in this region. For too long our message has been unclear, and many voters have failed to understand what it is the SDLP stand for, and thus many commentators defined us as “not Sinn Fein”. I will not allow our party to be defined on what or who we are not, and will seek to find the political space to allow the SDLP flourish with the brand of positive and campaigning politics upon which the party was formed.

Another point upon which we very much differ from Sinn Fein is our commitment to our principles, no matter what side of the border we are on, and no matter what role in government we will play. Whilst Sinn Fein espouses radical socialism in the south, they hold the power in the North, and are facilitating draconian cuts on the vulnerable this side of the border. The SDLP always have remained true to our founding value and principles, and our track record of 40 years in politics shows the integrity commitment of this message.

In the proposals I will put forward in the Assembly and Executive Review, I will insist that new institutions will ensure that politics is not defined on sectarian lines as sadly is often the case, as the two main parties refuse to meaningfully engage in a Shared Future. This was evident in the extremely poor and uninspiring Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document which was published last year, and which did nothing to promote the shared future of which so many so often speak of. Whilst this suits a political agenda, it is the most vulnerable people in society that this failure to address the blight that is sectarianism is impacting on, and the facilitation of “separate but equal” must be challenged without further delay, for both social and economic reasons.

In terms of our constitutional politics, the SDLP aspires to a new Ireland, which relates to the complexities of the North, but which relishes our commonalities rather than our differences. We are unashamedly nationalist in our outlook, but unapologetically collective in the approach under which we wish to see a new Ireland established, which seeks to redefine this region and this island. This means collective consent, and not merely majority rule; if this island, North and South, is to every be reunited, we must accommodate for those in Northern Ireland who do not necessarily aspire to an Irish identity, but who are proudly Northern Irish, and are part of the fabric that will represent a new Ireland.

(And an optional extra from Nicholas Whyte) What of your fellow candidate’s proposals do you like and will you implement as leader?

The most enjoyable thing about this leadership campaign has been the opportunity to meaningfully debate the future of the party with my fellow colleagues, particularly Alasdair, Patsy and Alex, but also with member’s right across the party.

It has been so refreshing and energising to hear so many different ideas for the party, and each candidate has something to offer the leadership of the SDLP.

Some of the ideas which have really appealed to me include the change to our party constitution which would ensure that every member in the party is entitled to vote at a leadership election, rather than just delegates.

I am also keen that all our MLA’s, and particularly the other candidates in the race are given roles which play to their strengths, as there is no doubt in my mind that each candidate has a particular set of skills which will be essential in bringing the party forward, such as in relation to party organisation, encouraging community activism and experience in government.

We’ll add the others as and when they come in….

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