SDLP needs a story that makes its opponents more uncomfortable than it does themselves..

Now here’s an interesting one. Almost as interesting for where it comes from as to what it suggests… Nigel Dodds is having a go at the SDLP for taking up a number of cases concerning the fate of dissident Republicans, in particular that of Gerry McGeough… The News Letter reports:

The DUP deputy leader questioned the advice being given to SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell and added: “Gerry McGeough was convicted of the attempted murder of my party colleague Sammy Brush. McGeough plotted to gun him down in his home. He had no regard for Sammy Brush’s human rights or the family that would have been left devastated had his evil enterprise been successful.

“It is outrageous that the leader of the SDLP should be demanding the release of such a person from prison.”

Well, may be. Mr McGeough’s case is an interesting one. Estranged from the mainstream Republican organisation in Northern Ireland he was arrested as he left the count centre for the Assembly elections of 2007 “in the full glare of the media”. He polled a mere 1.8% of the total vote.

Unusually for the post Belfast Agreement era, McGeough was then tried and convicted for the attempted murder of Mr Dodds’ party colleague, Cllr Sammy Brush back in 1981.

As for the SDLP, a party spokeswoman told the News Letter:

“…while paramilitary activists showed no respect for the human rights of their victims, it is our belief that not only are there no points to be scored by repaying wrong with wrong, but some principles transcend the desire to be popular.”

The spokeswoman said they believed the treatment of the pair “contravenes aspects of their human rights” in the pursuit of political expedience.

“Marian Price’s treatment in particular is unacceptable — unable to examine the alleged intelligence provided to the government against her, forced to accept legal advice from a government-appointed barrister who is not allowed to tell her what she is accused of, suffering serious mental health problems as a result of her largely solitary confinement and falling prey to increasing physical frailty, while her previous Royal Pardon appears to have been conveniently shredded.

“Gerry McGeough’s incarceration, so shortly after he disavowed Sinn Féin and challenged them electorally, raises concerns that there may be a politically-motivated subtext to the circumstances which precipitated his current situation.”

The spokeswoman added: “We would be failing those people who vote for our principles as defenders of human rights if we did not extend those principles to all those whose human rights appear to have been left unprotected.”

Slugger has heard complaints about the SDLP, particularly in Derry, championing the cause of dissidents like Marian Price from Sinn Fein sources also. Alisdair McDonnell holds on to his seat with the help of a small but significant number of Protestant voters.

Interestingly, although it still shows up on the google search, there no longer appears to be any reference to the Petition to free Gerry McGeough…

In the leadership election last November Mr McDonnell made no secret of the fact that he had (to borrow Mike Nesbitt’s term) ‘no big idea’ about where he might take the party. Organisation is what he pitched the membership and organisation was what they bought.

But both minor parties have been floundering and finding it difficult to get any purchase in public debate. There’s a noticeably local feel to the SDLP Press Office’s output with mostly McDonnell and Pat Ramsey in Derry taking the lead on the strange ‘long after the fact’ imprisonment of a select number of ‘stood down’ dissidents.

Sometime in or around 2005, I recall Alistair Campbell telling the Tories that if they wanted to turn their fortunes round they should do what he’d done to them in the run in to the 1997 general election and cause them as much trouble as they could.

If, and there is suspicion within Sinn Fein that the motive here is primarily political at making Sinn Fein less comfortable in Derry, where that party appears to be losing control of the streets to their former comrades in RAAD, it’s an odd one indeed.

Sinn Fein would dearly love to swap electorates with the SDLP. It’s been a point of some frustration that despite providing a deputy leader and a deput First Minister, Derry remains politically in the hands of the SDLP. Hume’s legacy has proven more enduring than anything bequeathed by Gerry Fitt in Belfast.

There is nothing wrong with pointing to the oddness of the arrests. But in the absence of any overarching theme to Mr McDonnell’s leadership, they risk being defined by it.

And there is no shortage of well resourced opponents who will go the extra mile to take the little the electorate have left them by pushing things that way.

Sinn Fein want that Foyle Westminster seat, and the DUP would dearly love to clean out the SDLP leader of his seat in South Belfast. A double whammy for team OFMdFM, if you like.

Organisation alone cannot save the SDLP, not least from its own campaigning ‘enthusiasms’. It desperately needs a story. Preferably one that makes its opponents more uncomfortable that it does itself.

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