McDonnell, the conference and the SDLP’s unhappy muddle. #sdlp13

This was Alasdair McDonnell’s third speech as SDLP leader. If you watched on TV the poor audio for the first ten minutes would have forced you to switch off but when the BBC managed to sort out its technical difficulties the quick reality was that the viewer was not missing much of anything anyway.

I always thought I understood what the SDLP believed in, but watching McDonnell’s speech I came away confused as I was subjected to bland statements and mixed messages. We had critiques of Sinn Fein over the 11 plus (ignoring that his party supported the policy) and the disappeared but no alternatives listed as to what he would do differently. This is the trap that the party constantly falls into. It delivers the attack but then it quickly falls apart under scrutiny from either the media or Sinn Fein themselves. Result; Sinn Fein left looking strong and more stories about how the SDLP can’t get their act together.

Then he decided to throw a bone to his green wing by saying that we as Irish nationalists make no apology for viewing the tricolour as their flag. He then went on to attack Unionists as unwilling to compromise. But just a few minutes later said he wanted to ‘win over’ middle ground Unionist opinion. Here in lies the problem for the party, you can do many things as a politician, but even the SDLP cannot be the champion of Irish nationalism while trying to become a more left wing UUP. You can be one or the other but not both.

This unhappy muddle is what is plaguing the party. Why is Sinn Fein wiping the floor with the SDLP? Because they have a policy platform and they stick to it. The SDLP will go nowhere while the leader continues to give speeches that are all critiques but no solutions. The mixed messages are what is killing the party. Voters may not be clear about the SDLP stands for, tonight after watching this speech, I don’t think they will be any better off. So continues the party’s unhappy muddle…

, , , ,

  • David,

    > My advice would be for Alasdair to improve his media performances/speeches and develop some new policies.

    Agreed. Yesterday’s speech had considerable rehearsal. I think he’ll have to live with his style of delivery.

    Content wise it was devoid of snappy takeaway messages that people could recall afterwards that would inspire then to the kind of action that would lead to electoral success. SDLP need to communicate policies much better and differentiate from SF without just attacking them.

  • Lionel Hutz

    CS,

    You’re theory is based on the idea that the SDLP only existed as a peaceful alternative to Sinn Fein and not a political party in its own right. I think its flawed. I think the SDLP’s problem was the raison d’etre of the party was seen to be the establishment of an acceptable form of governance and that having achieved it, people didn’t know what they wanted. The timing of their decline backs up this idea. The Hume Adams talks didn’t undermine the SDLP. Sinn Fein would have come in from the cold eventually anyway and putting the SDLP at the centre of that change only bolstered their support in the short term.

    I think the SDLP need a cycle or two of elections based on an organizational recovery. The way I see it, if there to face the next few years on a radical policy platform, they’ll just be laughed off. They need to demonstrate that they are structurally fit to be an alternative government before they can spell out their policy platform.

    This happens everywhere. To take a recent example, the Tories needed Michael Howard before they brought in Cameron.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Fitz,

    Do you think Alasdair is the sort of chap who puts a lot of store in those high quality advisers ? Are they the ones who told him to tell the press that MLAs should get a pay rise and a pension increase ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Lionel,

    We are down to essentially a difference of opinion on how history would have worked out had a few key issues occurred differently.

    You say that Hume-Adams made no difference, other than time, to Sinn Féin’s rise. I disagree. Adams wooed Hume because he knew he needed him. Hume could not resist the idea of being in the history books as the man who persuaded the IRA to give up violence. For republicans, the exit strategy was much neater. Rather than hanging up their guns in an apparent admission of defeat, they could say that they were persuaded to do so by an elder statesman.

    While Hume-Adams was going on the republicans were having separate parallel talks with the British which predated their talks with Hume. When you look at that, and account for the fact that the British had the power to actually facilitate certain things for the IRA, you start to understand what was really going on here.

    Had Mallon been in charge, say, rather than Hume, this would not have happened. The Brooke talks in the 1990s would have proceeded towards agreement and a document something similar to the GFA would have been produced around 1994/5. The SDLP would have stood for election on an anti-violence platform unambiguously against SF and the IRA as they had done prior to 1992. Given that the IRA were already defeated they would have had to face the choice between limping forward or standing on an anti-agreement platform.

    I think history would have been very different had Hume not done what he did. The IRA’s successful transition to democratic politics was by no means certain until Hume gave it his stamp of approval.

  • sean treacy

    When were discussing Dr McDonnell,am I totally wrong but washe not once known as”Allister” which would be a common name in the Glens to show a link with the McAllister.I could be totally wrong but as someone who has been following politics for nearly 4 decades, I find “Alasdair” to be a relatively recent phenominum

  • “I think the SDLP’s problem was the raison d’etre of the party was seen to be the establishment of an acceptable form of governance and that having achieved it, people didn’t know what they wanted.”

    @Lionel,

    If this is true, then why all the talk of a united Ireland over the decades? Remember there was the SDLP councilor who explained to a crowd back in 1974 how the party was going to leverage the Council of Ireland into a united Ireland. And what about Hume’s single transferable speech, which always referenced an agreed Ireland (code for a united Ireland)? The SDLP was never a green Alliance party but, rather, a constitutional nationalist party that unlike Sinn Fein wanted peaceful change and democracy.

  • “The Brooke talks in the 1990s would have proceeded towards agreement and a document something similar to the GFA would have been produced around 1994/5. The SDLP would have stood for election on an anti-violence platform unambiguously against SF and the IRA as they had done prior to 1992.”

    @CS,

    This is wishful thinking. Mallon was the leader of the pro-FF bloc within the party that supported Haughey in the 1980s at the New Ireland Forum rather than FitzGerald and FG. The Brooke talks went nowhere in 1992 because the unionists had gone as far as they wanted to go under the leadership of Molyneaux and Paisley.

    “and a document something similar to the GFA would have been produced around 1994/5.”

    Mallon would possibly have sharpened the differences with the Shinners, but there would not have been a deal earlier than we arrived at. Remember there were the Washington 3 conditions on decommissioning of John Major supported by John Bruton. Adams wanted a change of governments in both London and Dublin before he moved Sinn Fein forward. He also needed a split within the IRA that would leave him with control of the majority. This did not occur until October 1997. The main difference Mallon would have made was how the SDLP behaved towards the Shinners in the competition for the nationalist vote and he would probably not have been as forthcoming in opening up the party’s contacts in Washington to Adams and McGuinness for free. But because these contacts were largely Hume’s personal contacts rather than the party’s even this is doubtful.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Tmitch,

    The key is in the phrase “seen to be”. Whatever the SDLP believed themselves and spoke about themselves, the public and in particular, the nationalist public have seen the point of the party as achieving the GFA and having achieved it, the public do not know what they are for.

  • Lionel Hutz

    CS,

    Its all hypothetical but for the sake of argument.

    Do you think that the Unionist politicians (who actually walked out) would have accepted an agreement without the promise of decommissioning?

    Whether they were in pro such and agreement or not, SInn Fein would have had a seat at the table. And what would they have done with it.?

    And what would they have done with the SDLP? screams of sell out sell out sell out. The SDLP an implosion as the UUP did when they “sold out”.

    And the fundamental point is that the SDLP gained electorally from what actually happened. And only lost after a combination of the agreement and the retirement of its front row

  • “The key is in the phrase “seen to be”. Whatever the SDLP believed themselves and spoke about themselves, the public and in particular, the nationalist public have seen the point of the party as achieving the GFA and having achieved it…”

    @Lionel,

    If what you say is true, it is very sad. It means that no matter how often they are reassured of this, they will only trust a party if its leading figures kill and go to prison for it. And I would say that loyalists–as distinct from mainstream unionists–are the same.

  • David McCann

    I remember hearing the story about the first time Adams and Hume went to the USA together. When Hume was in the lobby the media surrounded him until Adams showed up and they flocked away. That to me was an important moment as Adams became the top act.

    However, I will credit Hume-a lesser man would’ve have pulled the plug due to ego but he continued and I think he knew it would ultimately damage his party.

  • son of sam

    If we are to believe yesterday’s Sindo,a lot of Sinn Fein’s election campaign next year is likely to be funded by Irish-American sources.No wonder Gerry was keen to hightail it to the States.Presumably they don’t interrogate him about the Disappeared out there!

  • David McCann
  • FuturePhysicist

    Having read the poll I can tell you that the survey questions Lucid Talk give are disgustingly leading, people on both sides of the debate at the conference could confirm that to answer one question if you don’t think abortionists should be killed you are somehow not pro-life.

    Questions certainly don’t match up their conclusions. I don’t believe in Lucid dreaming, and I can’t without any severe abandonment of integrity believe in Lucid Talk either. This misrepresentation could one day border on the criminal.

  • Lucid Talk gave an excellent presentation at a Fringe Meeting on Saturday.
    Very impressed by Bill Whyte.
    Figures are accurate and neutral ….its the commissioning and the “analysis” that are problems.
    The polling company does not exactly have control of how an anti-SDLP newspaper or anti-SDLP blogger will choose to interpret the facts.
    As I recall “Future Physicist” was also at the Presentation.
    And I think that both Liam (I was born in Dundalk and have an Irish passport) and John Davidson of Chambre PR had the decency to be a bit embarrassed when a member of the audience pointed out that the presentation of facts from opinion polls is dependant on an editorial stance and that the questions are polls are commissioned in the expectation of a result.
    So a letsgetalongerist think tank….just how many are there by the way? …..will want evidence to support their view.
    And a newspaper…liberal unionist like the Belfast Telegraph has been telling its readership that Nationalists are not really Nationalists at all.
    Indeed they even produced little coupons to tell Terence O’Neill we all loved him really.
    That didnt end very well.
    Somehow the Overclass prefer opinion polls to actual elections.
    Thus…79% of parents want integrated education in some form???and only 1.5% of the voters in Mid Ulster want it enough to vote for the political party most associated with it.
    Somehow letsgetalongerist think tanks prefer the opinion polls….and they aren’t quite sure where Mid Ulster is anyway.
    Not the kinda place where the supermarkets sell the better kind of apples. (Quality apples are a big thing with them).

    By the way nobody asked me my opinion on Saturday.
    But for the record 48% when added to the 32% who are neutral ???isnt that bad.
    A 20% dis-satisfaction rate is probably not the headline the Belfast Telegraph wanted.
    Or 80% approve or are ok with him.

    So a headline “80% of SDLP delegates are kinda ok or neutral with Leader” is a headline that will never be written in Belfast Telegraph or get a thread on Slugger o ‘Toole.
    Being a social sort of a person….I know quite a lot of SDLP people.
    I could certainly look around the hall and pick out a group of people and ask them what they thought of Alasdair.
    I could get a 100% approval rating.
    I could look around room and pick out another group (same number) and get a 100% who disapprove.

    Let me emphasise….this is not a reflection on Lucid Talk (I was genuinely impressed by them). They have little control over how the facts are interpreted in Belfast Telegraph.

  • David McCann

    Bill White said “Normally you would expect a party leader to get over +80% net approval amongst supporters,”

    Again you’re right about how papers can interpret polls-I always find that there will be something that a party will find to give it a glimmer of hope.

    I would like to have seen how many delegates were surveyed at the conference if anybody can find out?

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    tmitch57,
    “The Brooke talks went nowhere in 1992 because the unionists had gone as far as they wanted to go under the leadership of Molyneaux and Paisley.”
    A historical note here. The Brooke talks did not proceed because, although substantial agreement was reached between unionists and SDLP negotiators, Hume (who was not part of the team) overrode his colleagues and vetoes a deal. He wanted a stronger all-Ireland aspect than they did. The AIA had given him an artificially good deal (artificial because it was unacceptable to the majority of the NI electorate) and he was determined, despite its democratic rejection by NI voters, to cling on to it. He ended up, 6 years and many deaths later, with the all-Ireland structures of the GFA, which I’m not sure went a lot further than was on the table in 1992.

    I remember talking to a member of the UUP team shortly afterwards and there was a very upbeat, self-confident mood. Contrary to what is often written, there was a lot of good thinking and constructive work going on within the UUP in the aftermath of 1985. A lot of histories miss that mood of determination and urgency, preferring instead to talk about us ‘drifting’ or being ‘directionless’. The protest got nowhere because the government, SDLP and the Dublin govt stuck to a dead-end strategy, somewhat disgracefully. Unionism meanwhile, left outside this creaking disaster of a system, re-energised and developed in interesting ways. I think the 1992 talks opened the government’s eyes for the first time in a while to the fact they’d been sold a pup by the SDLP in 85.

    Unionists were not the barriers to change the SDLP had portrayed us to be (for their own gain). The nature of the Irish dimension was always the problem; but the deal done in 98 with the watery cross-border bodies could have been done much, much earlier, from our POV anyway (though probably not the IRA’s).

  • FuturePhysicist

    Hume would not have been a popular leader among SDLP ones particularly during the Hume-Adams talks. Enda Kenny was facing leadership contests the year before the banking bailouts. McDonnel has not even fought an election as leader other than the Mid-Ulster by-election. Fairly difficult to judge him or Nesbitt on the same terms as Robinson and McGunness/Adams.

    The successors to McGuinness and Adams would face the same problems as the successors to Mallon and Hume.

  • Comrade Stalin

    David,

    However, I will credit Hume-a lesser man would’ve have pulled the plug due to ego but he continued and I think he knew it would ultimately damage his party.

    Hume was a lesser man. He screwed over his own party because he wanted to get all the credit for building the peace. He wanted his name in the history books.

    tmitch57,

    As Mainland Ulsterman has already said – Hume pulled out of the talks because Gerry Adams was whispering in his ear about an alternative that was more attractive for Hume personally.

    Mark Durkan was leading the SDLP’s negotiating team at the time and I’m told he did so enthusiastically and was pushing for – and getting – significant progress. Durkan will have been extremely disappointed at the turn of events, as would Seamus Mallon.

    Hume’s idea of a solution was joint authority. I don’t know if he believed this was possible when Hume-Adams was in progress, but he certainly didn’t get it in the end.

  • Comrade Stalin

    FJH,

    reading your contributions is fascinating. I don’t know if you are aware of exactly how angry (not in a shouty way) and embittered you come across, especially at those whom you sneer at as “getalongerists”.

    Reading all your voluable contributions from the last view days you have very little to say about policy or the direction of the SDLP. Just that Alliance is the Enemy, “getalongerism” is a waste of time, and that you feel an overriding need to put those clever young boffins in their place.

  • I couldn’t care less what you think.

  • David – normally 50 delegates are surveyed – hence the results are even percentage numbers. Which – given the size of party conferences of 300-500 is a good proportion of the members present .. though I’m not going to look up the statistical accuracy tables at this time of night.

    (edited) Found the answer in a comment from Liam under the Belfast Telegraph article:

    The survey of 50 party members was carried out on Saturday 9 November 2013 at the SDLP conference in Armagh in association with LucidTalk polling. Interviews were conducted by Maria McCann and Aoife Stewart-McGovern, both Journalism students at Belfast Metropolitan College.

  • David McCann

    Cheers for that Alan.

  • Ah that might be the two young ladies who brought in a “survey” to the Room where the Lucid Talk presentation was taking place.
    The Lucid Talk presentation was scheduled to take place at 1.15pm but am I right in thinking that it was re-arranged by a few minutes.

    Alasdair’s speech was scheduled for noon.
    have we any information on when this Survey began and ended?
    Certainly the logical time would be after Alasdair’s speech….but that seems a very small window for two student journos to ask (admittedly not very complex) questions.
    was the survey taken as delegates, members, visitors, exhibitors left the hall en route to lunch?
    As I recall …and Alan might be able to help me here….delegates didnt wear any identification badges.
    I certainly wasn’t wearing any name tag.

    So was the first question on the Survey….”Are you a Delegate?”
    All in all it doesn’t seem a very professional.

    But a wake up call to delegates at the NI21 Conference next week.
    Lucid Talk will be delivering the same presentation.
    And doing the same survey????
    Lets hope that Basil gets 100% or better in the survey and the Belfast Telegraph reports it.

  • I’ve never even approached to be surveyed at a conference – Liam use to do some of the surveying himself before LucidTalk took over – but I hope their fist question is a verbal check they’re talking to a member! I do wonder whether the timing of the survey matters – before or after leader speech – given that party members are surely not fickle in the love or loathing of a leader. It’s an impression that won’t be toggled by a single good or bad performance.

  • I take that point Alan.
    Neither you or I were wearing any name tag on Saturday.
    I would unscientifically say that a sizeable number of the people in the Hall for the speech were exhibitors, visitors etc….and while you and I would have known SDLP members by face or name, we could not have distinguished between delegate or party member.
    Delegates had a voting card…and others (councillors etc) are delegates in ex-officio.
    But the Conference seemed more casual than usual. I did not have to produce any card to gain access at any point.
    Id certainly reckon some members of the Youth Group were not actually delegates.
    So I would wonder if this nuance was lost on the two students doing the survey.
    As Lucid Talk had a stall in the Exhibition area, I wonder would it not have been more convenient to conduct the survey at the stall….except of course it would have alerted Party members to the fact that there was a survey going on.
    So did SDLP staff actually know there was one going on?
    I think thats important because to be honest (without permission or at least knowledge) it seems a bit cheeky for Lucid Talk to conduct such a survey.
    Was secrecy actually a requirement?
    Because surely …SDLP (if they had known) would have got the word out….indeed if I had been Alasdair, I would have referenced it in my speech.
    “Folks…out in the corridor, you will be approached by Lucid Talk, asking if you approve of me…..so do the decent thing and tell the Belfast Telegraph what you think of them”
    That would have got higher than the 80% approval-acceptance rating and Belfast Telegraph would have lost some money.
    Most SDLP people would welcome that.

    But I think the timing IS important. Did it start as early as 10am ? I doubt that.
    But I DO know that THE Survey (or at least A Survey) was hand delivered into the room where the Lucid Talk presentation was taking place….less than an hour after Alasdair had stopped speaking.
    And into a room where Davidson and Clarke looked extremely uncomfortable.
    Now I know that Bill Whyte is a Slugger reader and perhaps he can clarify the methodology….did it meet the usual high standards or was it a glorified straw poll?

  • Barry the Blender

    “Hume was a lesser man. He screwed over his own party because he wanted to get all the credit for building the peace. He wanted his name in the history books.”

    I would never had you down as a critic of St John Hume CS.

  • quality

    fitzjameshorse1745

    Cheeky? I assume they paid for attendance, they can ask what they like to whom they like surely?

  • Indeed they did….and every right to conduct a survey.
    But we already have a query about the Methodology.
    I dont know how many delegates were at the Conference….let us say 400.
    Would it not have been more convenient to just print 400 slips of paper with the question….and put the paper in a box on the Lucid Talk stall.
    The theory is that the more people asked, the more accurate the survey.
    The inescapable logic is that if you ask all 400 delegates.the answer is more accurate than asking 50 people, most or all of whom were delegates.
    Altogether that seems a more convenient way.
    Bill Whyte was at pains to point out that Lucid Talk requires the trust of all the political parties.
    I would find it hard to believe that staging a cheeky little ambush is part of how Lucid Talk does things.
    But I emphasise Bill is a reader and can tell us how this all came about.

  • quality

    Would be interested in his response.

    But I wouldn’t term it a cheeky little ambush. BT in particular have been doing this for years at political party conferences, it’s common practice.

  • “Mark Durkan was leading the SDLP’s negotiating team at the time and I’m told he did so enthusiastically and was pushing for – and getting – significant progress. Durkan will have been extremely disappointed at the turn of events, as would Seamus Mallon.

    Hume’s idea of a solution was joint authority. I don’t know if he believed this was possible when Hume-Adams was in progress, but he certainly didn’t get it in the end.”

    @CS,

    Let’s say for argument’s sake that what you are saying above is correct. There are still the problems with the Republican input for your scenario to be accurate. The IRA was simply not ready to make a deal in 1993-97. Look how long it took for the IRA to go on ceasefire after the Downing St. Declaration and then the whole problem with decommissioning. Much of the problem was psychological: the IRA did not regard itself as a defeated army and it equated decommissioning with proof of defeat. Without the IRA, the agreement would have been a repeat of Sunningdale–just as painful for the unionists and without the compensation of an end to terrorism. I agree that Hume’s ego was damaging at some point. But he also through Hume-Adams tied the Republican leadership into the process that resulted in the Downing St. Declaration.

    @Mainland Ulsterman,

    In 1998 I interviewed a former member of the Belfast City Council from Alliance who claimed that after the AIA he couldn’t really tell the UU from the DUP in terms of their behavior. Both parties were busy boycotting. This was also the period when Reg Empey and David Trimble were busy with the Ulster Clubs and were making their way up in the party from out of the Vanguard dead end that their previous unionist party activity had taken them.

    I don’t really have any inside info on the Brooke talks, only that they did not succeed although some progress was made. All the open sources say pretty much the same thing. Their main contribution was the introduction of the three strand architecture.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    tmitch,
    I think you’re right – or the Alliance Party person was – that unionist unity was the name of the game at that time and the two main parties dedicated themselves to opposition to the AIA system, which meant they were working together then much more than before or since.

    It was not without positive effect either. London came to realise their mistake when they saw how universal and unwavering unionist opposition to the deal was. The campaign, by mobilising ordinary unionist political support, put down a marker for whatever was going to replace the AIA to say, the next one needs to include unionists.