The vote is in and the SDLP have gone for Alasdair as the man to revive the fortunes of a party seemingly on the verge of permanent minority party status (at best) within northern nationalism.
The party faithful clearly opted to put their faith in the only leader with a successful electoral record. Understandable, not least since the former favourite, Patsy McGlone, is elected to a constituency where he would have expected to remain under a Sinn Fein shadow with its three Sinn Fein MLAs and Martin McGuinness as MP.
McDonnell ironically talked about his plans to ‘unite the party’ in Eamonn’s pre-contest interview as it remains evident in Eamonn’s latest tweet that many in the party loathe McDonnell, confirming that he remains the most divisive figure in what was already a fracturing party. Whether those strongly opposed to McDonnell have the stomach to remain inside an already disillusioned camp, now that the new sheriff has been elected, remains to be seen.
His own selfish electoral needs will likely require him taking a strategic move further away from nationalist ground in order to retain his position as MP in what looks like the very difficult terrain of a new constituency. South Belfast is hardly the bellwether for northern nationalist sentiment, however, and it is in this regard that disillusionment in areas like McGlone’s Mid-Ulster may set in more rapidly.
In his favour, he is single-minded and not given to be dissuaded by fears that leadership initiatives will rock the boat within the party.
Ironically, as many on Slugger- and elsewhere- have sought to make the unconvincing case that Sinn Fein’s 13% plus share of the Presidential vote recently was a disaster, what the election did show was that Sinn Fein are better positioned than ever before to articulate a republican position to an all-Ireland audience, something which resonates with a northern nationalist audience increasingly of a view to regarding the SDLP as an irrelevance, holed out in geographical pockets of the north where Sinn Fein has yet to appropriately address deficiencies with regard to candidate selection which, once addressed, would see off the SDLP.
Whether McDonnell can be the SDLP leader who reverses its political and electoral fortunes remains to be seen. But progress on an all-Ireland dimension for the party, well beyond the barely credible existing position of having southern friends in all parties, will likely be a key determining factor in deciding whether there is a future for the SDLP in the post-Peace Process era.