In a time of crisis, you have to do small things well. Much of the SDLP’s decline (which has been slower and gentler than that of the UUP), was marked by doing some small things really badly.
The leader, in this case, got his man in, again it has to be said. That’s not necessarily easy for party like the SDLP to pull off. There’s no politbureau, no central intelligence office which constantly grades candidates and has the heft to order them to stand down.
Whilst he fails to impress on the big stage, it’s scoring small victories he has to look towards. McDonnell’s task in hand is get the party unhooked from the sentimental rhetoric its been spouting since shortly after the GFA and focused on working harder.
I’d cite four small things McDonnell has done well:
- The South Down selection race which similarly sidelined a talented young councillor in favour of a older candidate with profile in the middle of the constituency and tasking the MP with guarding Downpatrick, in order to strengthen the party’s defences there.
- Moving sitting MLA Patsy McGlone to challenge in the Mid Ulster byelection to use his general popularity to start drawing back voters from the considerable SF block there. Small move, surely. But it was smart, and one not taken before.
- In this case he has moved quickly to get someone who is close to him into the Assembly party (where arguably there are too many horses pulling in odd directions). Fearghal also has a high media profile, which has (as McSlaggart points out above) has an appeal outside the SDLP’s traditional gene pool.
- The almost surreptitious appointment of a head of communications who has professional experience of running political campaigns in the Republic. It’s early days, but Susanne Collins immediately eased back on the number (and pushed up the quality) of the press releases.
Claire Hanna is young enough to fight another day in another place. She’s very well got both internally and with people outside the party. She’s hard working, and I sense will put her back into getting a second candidate over the line next time out. That won’t do her any harm in the longer run, if Big Al can switch momentum.
She also understands what a voter looks like, and is not the type to ‘myther’ about her place in the internal food chain, the way some further up tend to.
I’m not sure I buy Ruarai’s certainty that Al is working to a strategy or a plan. But he does know the party is in trouble if it doesn’t get its finger out. As a countryman, he has a base in the heart of Catholic middle class Belfast, but he also keenly understands the worth of the political world beyond Glengormley.
No party in Ireland, north or south, will ever get a whiff of power if it settles itself comfortably into a purely metropolitan, or purely rural base. That may prove to be an important correction from its previously in-turned trajectory.
As for Fearghal, well his true qualities as a politician have yet to be seen. I have a personal soft spot for him since he was the host of my very first live TV appearance more than ten years ago. He has one good quality that is highly desirable in a politician: he’s likeable.
He’s going to have his mettle tested in the weeks and months to come. Certainly his profile should be an asset going forward, and he ought to be under no illusion about the realities of politics on the ground after the battering he took in FST.
Although none of these things mean the corner’s been turned.
It’s merely evidence that the party is in the charge of someone who understands that politics is a competitive game, and that it is the party leader who has to be in charge of the rudder, and that when he picks a fight, he must be the one who wins it.