Looks like bookies got it right and the SDLP electorate got it wrong. That’s probably not fair to Alasdair McDonnell. Or the SDLP. But if his rivals in SF were even remotely quaking in their boots before his inaugural speech, they were rolling in the aisle afterwards.
The most optimistic voices from the SDLP are suggesting that Al should be allowed to get on with his organisational reforms and then stand aside for someone who can hold a public space. The fact that we’re talking about skills rather politics gives some substance to Patrick Murphy’s taunting remark that the SDLP was more a comfort zone than a political party.
And the fact that people are writing his political obituary during his inaugural speech is not a great augury for the future. It’s said that it matters little that you make mistakes, but the quality of how you respond to adversary. McDonald has dropped a hell of a long way from his pugnacious five minutes on Friday night.
If his bull headedness comes to not taking even the most basic advice from his communications team, he may not last even as long as the last team leader.
The last few weeks have been intense and fruitful for this party as we met and debated all across the north. I have come through this process with two abiding memories.
One is the absolute determination of people
everywhere that this party will survive and that the
values upon which the SDLP was founded will be
carried forward into a new generation and into a new
The other thing we heard everywhere we went, over
and over again, was:
“Why can’t yous work together?”
My answer is – Yes we can.
That is what I asked for and you have mandated and
endorsed this weekend
– not just a new leader – but a new leadership system.
A collective system, that will ensure that the interests of
the whole party will always come first.
All leaders need to be accountable, to have built-in
checks and balances, even me.
I think it was during the last leadership contest that
some commentator referred to me as a bull in a China
Well, friends and colleagues, I can tell you we
are going to have a smashing time over the next
I will play to my strengths – diplomacy is over-rated and I
think I can leave the gimmicks and the media
spin to others.
I will take the bull analogy as a tribute to my reserves of
energy and my passion which, if tempered with wise
counsel, can produce much.
With me – what you see is what you get – and what
you will get is the action necessary to save this party.
So what will we smash?
First of all I would like to smash the myth that the
SDLP’s fate is already sealed, that this party is
somehow doomed to fail and die.
All that is wrong with us is that we don’t get enough
votes – that’s all.
Now I’m a medical doctor, and I can tell you this is not
an incurable condition, far from it.
As a matter of fact I have the prescription – and you have
it too, I posted it to all the delegates.
This is a proven formula.
We conducted the first successful field trials in
South Belfast in 2005, and produced a greatly
enhanced performance in 2010.
Next I would like to smash the myth that Sinn Fein and
the DUP are somehow invincible.
They’re not – they are just a bit better than us at getting
But above all I want to smash through the limits to
our own political vision.
We put so much into the Good Friday Agreement that
we became hypnotised by it.
We must now face up to the reality that the Agreement
has run out of road.
In the hands of the DUP and Sinn Fein, it may provide
basic political stability but it will not deliver any more
Of course we value stability.
Of course we will protect its institutional arrangements
and such elements of powersharing and
partnership as survive.
But we have to realise that the agreement will not
deliver further normalisation or any sort of normal politics.
That would require real and concrete steps to combat
sectarianism, real commitment to working for a
shared future – and the DUP and Sinn Fein are just
not going to do that.
Why should they?
They have captured the Good Friday Agreement and
remade it in their own divided image.
They may have kept most of its letter but they have totally
emasculated its spirit, and torn out the heart of
And from their point of view they are doing rather nicely
out of it.
Why should these sectarian turkeys vote for a non-
What we have now is all we are going to get, is all there
will be in the future, except there will be an added
further pressure – there’s going to be less money and
a lot more poverty.
The valuable power-sharing element has been replaced
by power carve-ups along the lines of a sullen ceasefire
which they like to call peace.
Here’s an indisputable fact: There were just nine so
-called ‘Peace Walls’ when the first ceasefire came in.
Now there are around fifty.
That is what those two parties would bequeath our
children – unless we in the SDLP do something about
In line with the promise I made, I can tell you that the
SDLP recovery plan starts right here and now.
I would like to meet as soon as posible with the newly
elected Party Executive just to lay out the urgency of
taking immediate measures for recovery.
I would like to meet with my Assembly colleagues to
stress the importance of different groupings and
organs within the party working together -and of
course, to take expressions of interest in a shared
Then I’m going to walk around the hall here and
collect copies of all the manifestoes and all the
literature produced by people seeking election to
the Executive so I can take them home and study them
and steal as many good ideas as possible to add
them to the bag of ideas that I have put before you this
I would urge you to do the same.
And I would urge you to go back to your constituencies
and call an emergency meeting of your branch to
discuss these ideas, collective leadership and
If you don’t have a branch, consider starting one.
Next – convene a special meeting of your constituency
association – if you have one.
At these meetings I would ask you and your fellow
members to fix your minds on one thing.
What you together need to do to ensure a massive
SDLP recovery in the Assembly elections of 2016.
You will not be doing this alone.
My next task is to meet with the Chief Executive and
General Secretary to discuss the practicalities of
holding a special SDLP renewal conference early in
the New Year to discuss precisely such a recovery.
We need to hit the ground running.
We don’t have years to debate or worry about our
Unless we quickly and clearly demonstrate that we
have the will and ability to recover then our existing
level of support will begin to drift away by the middle of
The next 100 days are absolutely crucial.
Together everyone needs to help and I am asking for that
We must stick to the three-month schedule for the
special renewal conference, and it must produce real and
visible change in this party on the ground within
another six months.
We must create political momentum.
We must be back on the road as an electoral force
before the Assembly goes into summer recess.
That is an enormous task, so big that right now, no one
can say where it ends.
But I can tell you – it starts now.
We are going to look for help in mapping out the
task, in scoping and scaling the work that has to be done
at and immediately after the conference.
That is why I will be consulting this week with the
Chief Executive on setting up a small expert
commission, a Task Force charged with bringing
forward proposals to that conference for the
development of an efficient and effective organisational
Let me say immediately that it is electoral efficiency
-getting SDLP votes into ballot boxes – that I have in
mind as the appropriate benchmark.
We are going to look to our friends for help in making a
And the SDLP still has many friends.
We will ask our sister Social Democratic parties to help
us identify best practice in Dublin, London & Brussels.
The Task Force will rely heavily on the organisational
recovery plans drawn up by the Chief Executive two
But we must be prepared to make sweeping changes
and not be hidebound by existing structures where
they don’t work.
We can’t go on with the fiction that there are lots of
branches out there – there aren’t.
What we really have got is a handful of active branches,
usually built around a successful representative.
A number which are being valiantly carried by a few
And a great number of branches which hardly ever
We must find new ways of embracing everyone who
feels part of the SDLP family.
Membership should no longer be mediated solely
though geographical branches.
We made the mistake before of missing a
generation by failing to mentor young members and
young candidates, by failing in succession planning at
many levels, and we are paying dearly for it now.
Most important of all, I would ask the organisational
commission to bring forward early proposals for a
permanent mechanism of consultation with all
From my perspective this must involve a weekly
programme of leadership visits to constituencies and
branches combined with every available form of
As a priority I will ask the Task Force to bring forward
best-practice proposals for internal party discipline at all
We need everyone pulling on the same rope in the
same direction and I believe a collective leadership will be
better placed to improve discipline.
The special conference is going to have some difficult
choices to make.
The Task Force may have to pose the question – does
the local party have an absolute right to select a
losing ticket? – and the special conference, in the
context of Collective Leadership, may have to
But I am absolutely determined that decisions
such as these will not be made in the mouth of the
The SDLP is going to be prepared and battle-ready at
We will have made our choices long before the date
of an election.
Our candidates will be known well in advance and
be promoted as party representatives with
appropriate party resources and backing.
That is how winning parties do it.
That is how we are going to do it.
There are other things we must do in the first 100 days
to signal that we are back in business.
This Party will organise a conference on the economy.
It’s important for a number of reasons.
Firstly, we have established a track record in recent
years, with the help of our policy team, producing well-
written policy papers which have won praise from
economists and other commentators and not a
little imitation from our political opponents.
Secondly, there is no other source of political leadership
on economic issues in the north at a time when so
many people in business, in trade unions and in the
community and voluntary sector are crying out for a
But the most important reason is that we are Social
Democrats and we must produce a Social
Democratic response to what is happening – or more
accurately not happening – in our economy and our
Our economy is now in the grip of a Tory orthodoxy
which would not give the time of day to social
democratic notions of shielding the most
Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein will contest that
They have no intention of putting it up to the
Chancellor as Alex Salmond has done in Scotland.
The Tory plan is simple – squeeze the expenditure
side and devolve the cuts.
Sinn Fein and the DUP are now just bailiffs for the
absentee landlords in the Treasury.
There are cuts coming down the line the likes of which we
have not seen for many a year.
Cuts in jobs, cuts in schools, cuts in hospitals.
Sinn Fein and the DUP have no plan except to blame
each other, London, or both if it suits them.
As Social Democrats we reject the notion that we can
cut our way out of a recession.
As Social Democrats we reject the notion that
providing jobs is always and only the business of the
private sector, that the economy and society are
somehow separate worlds.
Now is the time to put forward our own Economic
Now is the time to say that clever government spending
can be used to boost the economy, to protect existing
jobs and create new ones.
Now is the time to say that it is bad economics to push
our most vulnerable people into further financial pain.
Not because we think the DUP and Sinn Fein will
understand us, never mind heed us.
Not because we believe the Treasury would let them do
these things even if they wanted to.
But because it is our job to make some sort of sense
out of what is happening, to explain to people, to hard-
working families, to businesses struggling to
keep their heads above water, that it doesn’t have to
be like this, that there is another way, a better way.
And we have identified another way.
That’s what Social Democrats do, and that is
why the SDLP will be holding this Special
Economic Conference as soon as possible.
The other thing we will do within 100 days is to start to
put our fund-raising onto a rational and sustainable
The day of the big political donor is over, and state
funding alone will not be our salvation.
In this, as in so many other areas, I want to see us
returning to the democratic principles of voluntary effort,
devolving fund-raising along with general control of this
party to the ordinary members.
But we face immediate financial pressures and I
intend to do something about that in the first
There was a good opportunity this week.
A few days ago my odds at the bookies lengthened as I
had predicted they would, and, as a joke, I suggested
to the Chief Executive that he should gather up every
pound he could find and bring it round to Paddy
I will be reminding him later of what he could have won.
Even as we struggle with daily political and
Even as we work hard for our recovery.
We must never forget why we are here – why we are
doing it all.
The vision of the founding fathers of the SDLP was of
a reconciled people living in a united, just and
prosperous New Ireland.
That is our vision too, but it is not just some pious
aspiration for a distant future.
It is a place we firmly intend to go, where I intend to lead
Our journey has already begun.
Now it’s about how we will we get there?
It took the SDLP 30 years to achieve our primary aim of
an Agreed Ireland, to stop the killing and stop the
constitutional stalemate and its sectarian underpinning
from poisoning the whole political atmosphere.
That was a long and painful journey, often appearing to
have no end.
But it did achieve an Agreed Ireland.
But now our Agreed Ireland has been reduced to an
Agreed Agenda for every Executive meeting, agreed
beforehand between Sinn Fein and the DUP,
This is Wolfe Tone’s worst nightmare, a government of
Catholics and Protestants but absolutely no
Its greatest achievement and highest aspiration is what
they like to call the Social Investment Fund, which
Alex Attwood correctly characterised as a political
£80 million of badly needed funding, which could do so
much good, but will be doled out in slices to
favoured, compliant community groupings on
each side of the divide, a million pounds for your side
of the house, a million for mine over here.
We will not live indefinitely in this political dead end.
The other bit of the Agreed Ireland, the bit that Sinn Fein
prefers not to talk about, is the Principle of Consent
which they too signed up to.
In a nutshell, we can only get rid of partition when a
majority of voters in the north agree.
That means the greatest political currency in this
debate is persuasion.
It means we must persuade for unity.
And who is to be persuaded?
Well, it must be unionists, mustn’t it?
There is certainly not much point heading off to London
to tell the British government to be a persuader for unity,
as others have done.
There is certainly not much point convening the Irish
Diaspora in New York for unity.
So who are the qualified persuaders? They certainly
will not be those who found themselves confronted daily
with their ugly past during the Presidential election.
No – this is a job for the SDLP.
And along the way we will not be trying to turn
unionists into nationalists.
We have created, and will continue to nurture, an
atmosphere where it is possible to sit down with
many strands of unionism and tease out where their
best long-term interests lie.
We have been doing a little of this in South Belfast and elsewhere and the debate, private and considered, is very promising.
We must now spell out what a united and New Ireland might actually look like.
Look at what our policy document says:
“We believe that all the rights, protections and inclusion that nationalists have sought within Northern Ireland while it is in the United Kingdom must equally be guaranteed to unionists within a New Ireland.”
Not many unionists know that is our position. Actually, not many nationalists know it either. The time has now come to sell our vision actively, north and south.
SDLP proposals for a Forum on Irish Unity which we developed after the 2007 election were basically side-tracked by the economic downturn and the financial crisis in the south.
Under my leadership they would be given the highest priority again.
Not least because they are of immediate relevance for the political direction which devolved government in the north must take over the next decade.
Based on our longstanding co-operation with all the parties of democratic nationalism I will seek to sign up partners for unity based clearly on the principle of consent and the practice of persuasion.
Ahead of us looms 2016, when two important events will take place.
Firstly, there will be a great effort by those who seek to revise and rewrite our recent history -to sweep murder under the carpet – finally and forever. They will not succeed.
Their effort is of course already under way, but there is plenty of evidence that victims and indeed the broad electorate in the south are not going to buy it, now or in the future.
The second event will be the Assembly elections, which I believe will be a turning point for this party, for the Assembly and indeed for the north as a viable political, economic and administrative entity.
By then I believe that the narrow two-party Politics of the squeezed Block Grant will be showing signs of extreme stress. It will be increasingly petty, increasing sectarian and increasingly hopeless for all our people.
But by then I believe the SDLP will be a fully battle-ready electoral machine with an already proven track record of activism on the ground and in councils across the north.
By then we will have pencilled in the contours of a new, united Ireland.
We will have engaged with a wide range of opinion in the north and in the south.
We will have listed the obstacles to unity and set them against the incentives. We will have better explored the potential of an all-island economy and of bringing all our public services together.
When Block Grant Politics finally hits the buffers, we will have explored the alternative – and presented it to the electorate. The major roadblock on the road to a New Ireland is the electoral weakness of the SDLP.
Let us first cure that, You and Me, and we can continue our journey to a New Ireland.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty