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 McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs