SDLP shows signs of life … and opposition

If the number of motions raised by party branches was an indication of strength and fervour, the SDLP would have forever lost their South Down and Londonderry Party nickname.

Unlike unionist party conferences, the SDLP’s annual shindig is a policy body as well as a public relations vehicle. Outside of the Parliamentary Assembly Group which raised around one third of the 118 motions, Belfast branches lead the lobbying table:

  • 9 Balmoral
  • 8 Anderstown
  • 6 Youth
  • 6 Omagh
  • 5 Rowallane (South Down)

With motions from nearly 20 different branches and party groups, the SDLP shows signs of activity right across Northern Ireland. Though I can’t find a single contribution from the Lagan Valley branch. Perhaps Alasdair McDonnell’s promise to reinvigorate the party structure is paying off?

Motions debated this afternoon noted the party’s concern about “anti-social behaviour, sexual assault and theft in … the Holylands”.

As well as motions asking for “greater flexibility in the provision of STEM education” and one calling on the Department of Education “to put an end to the uncertainty and lack of clarity surrounding the unregulated transfer system” there was a motion to show that the conference “deplores the short-sighted decision of Queen’s University Belfast to close the QUB German department”.

Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster’s ears will have been burning this afternoon as a motion called on her to “set aside her narrow ‘border mentality’ and ensure that the tourism authorities in Northern Ireland, including her Department and the NI Tourist Board, participate fully and enthusiastically in ‘The Gathering’ initiative”.

Competing motions and amendments will have spiced up the afternoon’s business. While conference voted 3:1 in favour of equal marriage, an unused amendment from the Enniskillen branch was on the books to limit party policy to same gender civil partnership:

39. Conference recommends that in view of the importance of the position of the family, universally defined as a union of husband and wife leading to the procreation of children, and, as such, the groundstone of society and the cement of its future development, we underline the principles of equality established by the Civil Partnership Act but emphasise, as it does, that the institution of marriage is for people of opposite gender and that civil partnership is for people of the same gender. Enniskillen Branch

Opposition was also visible in deputy leader Delores Kelly’s speech this evening:

But the fundamental political question is this..

Although Alex Attwood is an SDLP powerhouse in the Executive, this DUP/Sinn Fein administration is following a path that is increasingly difficult for us to support.

Especially difficult to support as partners in Government.

We may have swallowed, for example, a Review of Public Administration 11 Council carve-up, which we did not agree with, (and which Alex is now obliged to implement) but can we continue to accept the Welfare Reform onslaught? Or the disgraceful decisions on housing? Or the attempts to create community funds where the real intention is to channel money to favoured groups?

Can we really accept the road block on North/South? Or the continuing mess in Education after 10 years of incompetent and ideologically obsessed Sinn Fein Ministers?

So I pose the question. Shouldn’t we be thinking about going into some form of opposition? I’m not saying we should walk out of Government next week or next month, and I know there is no formal provision for Opposition – but shouldn’t we be thinking about where all this is going?

Because I can tell you, colleagues, that despite us being a Party of constructive participation and despite the valiant work of Alex Attwood, we are being tarnished by the failures and behaviours of this DUP/SF Executive. We might lose a few jobs by leaving Government – but we could lose our soul if we go on inthis Executive indefinitely. Do we need to give ourselves more freedom to act?

We have always been, and we remain, a confident Party brimming with ideas and idealism and hope. We have nothing to fear from leading change. Indeed we have always been prepared to lead change. So let’s think about our options for making things better.

So, as we enter this new phase of politics – where the price of political stability has been a slide into carve-up and a denial of all that was positive and forward-looking in the Good Friday Agreement, let us take stock and have a clear think about what is actually best for our people in the period ahead.

We must always be the Party with the best values. And it is surely our responsibility, that which sets us apart, to restore hope to the people and to the politics of the North.


  • I note the number of motions. I know very little about their content.

    In relation to Dolores Kelly’s speech, is there actually a motion that the Party goes into opposition?

    That might make the SDLP look a bit more like the “Start Debating Like Politicians” party.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I think you’re thinking to British centric … You can debate like politicians in Switzerland which has a mandatory coalition. Opposition is only a single issue, it’s not going to change voting patterns it’s not going to breathe confidence into the economy it won’t cause there to be revolving door governments changes every couple or so elections … That’s down to the people northern parties and particular those who make the effort to vote because they need the effort from government to act.

    Unfortunately local media is more obsessed with the soap opera of power than how people use it. Switzerland had no opposition, Belgium had no government for nearly two years but both had a media grounded with people’s expectation to promote policy debate and not just the partisan issues.

    People in secure jobs can dwell on fantasy politics, over asking real policy questions.

  • FuturePhysicist

    People not parties … iPad predictive text problem

  • Opposition is only a single issue, it’s not going to change voting patterns

    You will not be proven right until opposition has a chance to make an impact. I would doubt that genuine debate (which ordinary people can take ownership of) can properly develop until real opposition begins. Ask an ordinary nationalist what the difference is between Sinn Fein and the SDLP and they are only likely to remember that one glorifies past violence and the other does not.

    The SDLP badly needs to be different, in voters eyes, for other reasons. Of course they need more political talent as well but I believe opposition is the right vehicle to bring that out. It would galvinise more enthusiasm from the press. I believe it would help the SDLP to become associated with social and financial issues, rather than the colour of their political stripe.

  • Actually just home from the Conference.
    Most of the good stuff which happens in and around Conference is not actually in the main hall…..but rather in the conversations between members.
    What actually happens “at the podium” is only the tip of the iceberg.
    I think there were three highlights.
    1…Dolores’ speech was very well received. And fair to say that she the Opposition thought is long term and probably conditional on a few “lines in the sand” being stepped over.
    Dismantling the Good Friday Agreement or even institutions established BEFORE 1998 would be an issue. But there is clearly a growing catalogue of issues..Girdwood, Welfare, Parades……which will be added to…so there will presumably be a critical mass.
    2…the passing of the Equal marriage amendment also very significant.
    3…a Fringe Event……presented by the Pat Finnucane Centre…..on three weapons used in murders with state collusion in (mostly) Armagh and Tyrone. The first near Dungannon being the murder of the father of a young SDLP woman (then 4 years old) who is standing for Party Executive. of the final murders being that of married SDLP members near Dungannon. Alan-in-Belfast will recall this from last years Conference.

    I might also highlight the number of people wearing an fáinne and conversations taking place in Gaelic. Indeed the top table was in Gaelic.

  • Comrade Stalin

    There is something utterly delicious about the irony of the SDLP hanging themselves on their own petard. They are the chief architects of the system of government which among other things severely penalizes those who choose not to participate in the election. This was designed, at the time, to restrain wrecker parties such as the DUP (back then) but it works equally well to exclude anyone else who decides to take their chances.

    It is, furthermore, a double irony because the SDLP are here again committing themselves to a refusal to consider reforming the institutions which act to marginalize them.

  • ayeYerMa

    FuturePhysicist, it isn’t accurate at all making out that Northern Ireland is similar to Switzerland. While their system did result out of a similar conflict situation, the element of politics that the Swiss are most proud of and makes the whole thing work is their concept of “direct democracy”. All it takes is for any Swiss citizen to get a petition with certain number of signatures and the Swiss will call a referendum on almost anything, passing nationally on the requirement of a simple majority of votes in addition to requiring a majority of cantons in support. This is so important to Swiss people that every place that serves food or drink must also have free newspapers available so that everyone has an opportunity to know the issues of the day!

    Without the “direct democracy” set-up in Switzerland the power-sharing system simply would not work nor make any decisions (cough!).

    Some more at:

    Having said all that, we could actually do with a few more referendums in Northern Ireland — it’s the only way the disaster of a political system is going to be able to be reformed.

  • socaire

    Oh Lord. Please make us an effective opposition ……………. but not just yet.

  • son of sam

    Interested in F J H’s post on Pat Finucane fringe event;Is this the first time they have attended an S D L P conference or are they regular attenders?My perception(though I could be wrong)was that they would be more closely aligned with Sinn Fein.I presume they would say that they are non-political.

  • Son of Sam,
    The murders that the PFC were talking about were three sterling sub machine guns “stolen” from army bases in Lurgan/Dungannon area.
    This at a time in 1970s when Provisional IRA were themselves involved in murderous campaigns. So Sinn Féin would be very unlikely advocates for “justice” in these collusion cases.
    The presentation was by way of five people ……acting roles ..three SDLP rank and file members took the parts of the “gun”….and its victims.
    There was a narrator from the PFC. And a well known journalist acted as the “civil service”, “judiciary” quoting from official reports and judgements. .
    The killers in nearly all cases were memembers of the security forces……who doubled up as UVF. The killers were named and their fate in courts or whatever mentioned.
    Their connexions to “Intelligence” also referred to.
    The presentation was about 45 minutes long and this is the second year it has been a feature of SDLP Conferences.
    I should also mention that the presentation mentioned the brutal murder of Protestant workers at Kingsmills.
    This was essentially the story of the “career” of three guns.
    As I recall, when recovered the guns were “destroyed”.

  • FuturePhysicist

    CS, I’m a physicist suggesting a political move even one as big as having an Opposition instantaneously effects the ballot box is called “action at a distance” and I refuse to believe in such superstitious nonsense. It is also the slavery to this ideological reliance on parties carrying the stranglehold on affairs here that ruined our sense of civic politics. We had civic democracy during the Civil Rights movement, we see it today carried out by trade unions and students, there is also powerful civic groups like the Spirit of Enniskillen healing divisions and encouraging unity where our politicians are not … Yet the media is obsessed with opposition at Stormont more so than anything that gets done there.

    People who are apathetic to real policy based politics and more concerned with partisan alliances and coalitions are detached and probably making money off our politicians ignoring the civic society they claim to stand up for. Dribbling no-nothing’s who don’t get out much and listen to what real people want to say to the people in Stormont.

    The Republic had an opposition since incarnation and for the vast majority of its existence it had Fianna Fail led governments. Proof that opposition doesn’t cause change, but people do. Voters can think for themselves without political prodding, it’s what politicians do on the wholesale that influences (rather than directs) people’s choice if any when they come to vote. Change only comes at the mercy of the electorate.

    The people most obsessed by opposition in the Executive parties are in my opinion the ones least reliant

  • sonofstrongbow

    “…the presentation mentioned the brutal murder of Protestant workers at Kingsmills.” How many minutes in a “forty five minute presentation does a ‘mention’ merit I wonder?

    Perhaps it’s part of the SDLP’s ‘Protestant Outreach’?

  • son of sam

    Extract from the Pat Finucane mission statement
    “We believe that all participants to the conflict have violated human rights”—-One wonders how many presentations on the activities of the Provisional I R A the P F C have carried ot at conferences and gatherings.Despite Son of Strongbows caustic remark,he should differentiate between the S D L P and the Pat Finucane Centre.As I understand it this presentation was a fringe event at Conference .Wonder who was the well known journalist mentioned in F J H’s post?!