Is the SDLP now ready to take a bet on its own future?

Given some of the product of the SDLP leadership contest (most notable perhaps in Patsy McGlone’s contribution) seems to be about shifting the engagement process (rather than defining new policy), this speech by Micheal Martin to Fianna Fail’s Youth Conference in Cork this afternoon is worth noting, since it tricks out something of that party’s approach to coming back in from the cold:

To achieve renewal this must be a party that is totally open to new people, new ideas and new thinking. This must a party where every member is valued and can make their own distinct contribution to what Fianna Fáil stands for and what we deliver for the Irish people.

To succeed we need every single member to play their part. The distance which grew between our leaders and our members in the past played a big part in us losing our way and I am determined that this will not and cannot happen again. The days of a Parliamentary Party attempting to decide everything in isolation from the membership are over for good.

This is a party that is going to listen and be informed by what our members think and what they are hearing on the ground. Constituencies are again holding meetings on a series of radical reform proposals for our organisation. I want to encourage you to play a full part in this process. By the time we hold the Ard Fheis next year I want us to vote on these reforms and swiftly move on to implement them.

Mark Devenport makes the comparison with Robert the Bruce, the Scots monarch whose career (as fiction has it) was turned in contemplation of a spider struggling within a Rathlin cave some short distance from Dr McDonnell’s Glenariff birthplace. Less fancifully, Devenport notes:

Immediate questions for the new leader will be who the party’s only minister should be? What role in the “collective leadership” should Conall McDevitt play, given his impressive second place? Longer term dilemmas include whether the SDLP should remain in the Executive or go into opposition.

The problem of who does what is not as pressing as what is to become of the one thing thing the South Belfast rivals have in common, a stricken party. As Conall McDevitt put it in his hustings speech last night, “We have to prove that this is not a one generation party.”

The real problem facing the party is not who gets first place in the lifeboat but that the current arrangements at Stormont are slowly squeezing the life out of it (and the UUP)… And they’re getting encouragement to go it alone from some unexpected quarters. Not least the current, unofficial leader of the Opposition at Stormont:

If the party is to make credible policy promises to its electorate it cannot continue to abide a situation where every public statement is subject to correction or interrogation either before or around each Executive table from its main political rivals.

Opposition may not be perfect, but the party’s criticism of its rivals will always ring hollow whilst they are umbilically attached to every cut and crossed ‘t’ of Sammy Wilson’s budgets.

Going back to the dilemma’s faced by the new leader. We simply don’t know how it will go with what Chris has correctly diagnosed as Alisdair’s abrasive character. But if he’s a democrat he will know that Conall McDevitt (late of this virtual parish) must be dealt with (one of the things our crowd sourcing experiment got right). He holds a significant chunk of the sentiment of the party.

The one thing the thorough going nature of this leadership process should tell the SDLP is that despite the egalitarian ethics of many of its members, it must not be afraid of competition, and it must learn to cherish its winners. And that in turn ought to define its shift in focus from retaining the few jobs currently available to it at Stormont to winning power over ceremonial office.

Surprisingly, perhaps, that’s a message I’ve heard from across the supposed ideological divide within the party. As Chris has noted, it remains to be seen what the often impulsive Dr McDonnell makes of the opportunity. For now he has a unified party, and one that seems willing, for the first time in many years, to take a bet on its own future rather than lean heavily on the glories of its past.

Perhaps its time to ‘crack some of the family delph’?