SDLP conference – a party ill at ease with itself over opposition & strategy #sdlp13

Over half the motions at the SDLP policy-making annual conference were addressed on Friday afternoon and evening. Participation in debate was sporadic and the numbers of delegates in the hall were low compared to the number catching up in the hotel corridors and social areas. One observer recalled that not much more than 50 people were in the hall for Friday’s health debate, and a fifth of them were lobbyists! That was a large attendance compared with mid-morning on Saturday.

sdlp13 Housing debateMy recollection of previous SDLP conferences is that there’s always a slow start on the Saturday morning. This year the first slot of the day was held in private, reserved for constitutional amendments and motions about party organisation. This overrunning session included motions about public representatives having “a free vote on issues of religious, moral or ethical nature” with no whip allowed.

Team SDLP YouthAs always, the SDLP Youth were large in number and obvious, wearing red Team SDLP t-shirts during the leader speech and posing for photographs with Euro candidate Alex Attwood. However the party’s youth wing were perhaps too present on Friday evening when some walked out of the hall in a dispute over party constitution reform and youth representation on the party executive.

Irish Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore (Irish Labour Party) delivered a very supportive speech in which be called for collaborative working to both renew commitments to reconciliation and also to remove “the brakes on an all-island economic relationship”.

Eamon GilmoreHe said “however painful we must finds ways to acknowledge and deal with [the past]” and committed the Irish Labour Party “to facilitate the families of the Disappeared bringing their exhibition on their lovedones to towns and cities throughout Ireland”.

[Gilmore] In terms of how we collectively deal with the past, there is much in the Eames/Bradley report that we can use. That is a point that I made to Dr Richard Haass when I met him in Dublin last week and I will continue to emphasise this as those talks reach their conclusions.

Delegates and exhibitors were shepherded into the Armagh City Hotel hall in time to hear Alex Attwood deliver a warm build up to Alasdair McDonnell’s speech. Comparisons between the two performances were unavoidable, with Alex’s relaxed and assured delivery appearing very leader-like for the candidate who was eliminated first in the four-horse race this time two years ago. (Listen to Alasdair McDonnell’s speech in two parts.)

[McDonnell] We believe that the SDLP’s unique vision for the future is what makes us different.

The SDLP’s hopes and ambitions match the pressing needs of ordinary hard working people; whom we are privileged to represent at every level – and with your support we will be able to represent them again in Europe … Alex [Attwood] has served us all brilliantly as a Minister and he is well qualified to take back John Hume’s seat and put a robust pro- European SDLP voice back in Brussels at the heart of European affairs.

Next May’s European and Super Council elections will give everyone an opportunity to tell the DUP and Sinn Fein what they think of their poor record in Government and their failure to deliver any significant change for the better.

As we approach those elections I recall that moment two years ago when you elected me as leader. I pledged to you then to spearhead the reorganisation, rebuilding and regeneration of our party, the SLDP SDLP … We are ready for the electoral battle next May.

After the speech, veteran SDLP figures questioned the “vigorous renewal” that Alasdair McDonnell celebrated, and challenged aspects of the party’s campaigning strategy.

The party leader pitched the SDLP to first time voters:

… have a good look at the SDLP and what we stand for. If you want a party that’s open, honest and inclusive, believes in give and take as a principle and not just a tactic, you have found your political home.

Several minutes of the speech were devoted to a tribute to the work of Eddie McGrady who is seriously ill, and bringing a message from his hospital bed:

[Eddie McGrady] Just get out there and finish the job.

The DUP’s and Sinn Fein’s “poor record of Government” was a repeated theme throughout the speech. People were telling Alasdair McDonnell:

They feel let down. They feel very badly let down. Yes. The DUP and Sinn Fein are the parties of disappointment, false promise, poor government, bad politics—- and no results. They have had their chance and they have failed the test.

SDLP MLAs and their minister were “fighting” on policy issues, “challenging and facing down the bad politics and poor government of the DUP and Sinn Fein”.

Politics have to deliver results for everybody particularly ordinary hard working families. I believe that our SDLP core values are central to rebuilding faith in politics, and trust in politicians and delivering worthwhile benefits. Those core values are: Reconciliation, Social Justice and Prosperity. These are not abstract concepts. They define the SDLP’s objectives and whole approach to politics.

audience for McDonnell speechThe next section of the speech dealt with reconciliation, social justice and prosperity.

After thirty years of murder, abuse, and suffering our battered society is crying out for healing and reconciliation. Reconciliation – within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between Ireland and Britain.

Social justice demands that our vulnerable people are protected; that our families have ready access to decent health care and don’t have to wait weeks for a medical appointment; that our old people feel secure in their homes and on the street.

Prosperity means worthwhile employment opportunities and real sustainable jobs that give hard working families financial security and the ability to plan for the future. Economic Prosperity is vital for Social stability. It is the only way we can underpin the reconciliation and social justice that will in turn anchor our hard-won peace in a new North and a New Ireland …

We still have a long way to go to achieve any substantial measure of reconciliation. The many broken promises in the programme for government show the disappointing failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein including the failure to get to grips with a shared future, collusion issues , real power sharing and integration.

In local Councils the Unionists have been frustrating power-sharing and inclusivity at every opportunity. It is now high time for the DUP to clarify without ifs; without buts; without maybes where they stand on meaningful partnership in Local Government.

Sinn Fein has stood back and allowed the DUP to slow down the evolution of the all-island bodies and hollow out the Good Friday Agreement. As Irish nationalists we say this is totally unacceptable.

There was a call for the Civic Forum.

I want now to serve notice on Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness that the SDLP will continue pressing to advance reconciliation and ensure that the views of ordinary people will be heard at the heart of Government with the re-establishment and reconvening of the Civic Forum.

On to emblems and flags and Haass.

For much of the past year riots and mayhem have dominated the headlines. Hundreds of courageous PSNI officers; holding the line, have been injured, the police have been stretched to breaking point and the economy of Belfast has been severely damaged.

Delegates, As Irish nationalists we make no apology for regarding the Tricolour as our national flag. We believe that the Irish Tricolour, emblems, symbols, and language should be given parity of esteem.

Last December, Belfast City Council arrived at a sensible compromise, to fly the Union Flag on designated days, a decision that was supported by the SDLP.

It is unfortunate that Unionists cannot do Compromise.

… I think it is important to make a few things clear about this Talks process. The SDLP’s goal is a sustainable comprehensive agreement on flags, parades, dealing with the past and any other unfinished business. This will enable us to fairly reflect the new political realities that have emerged since the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.

The SDLP want the other parties to work with us to address the Past on an ethical basis. This is about more than just, truth recovery, acknowledgement and accountability. The needs of victims and survivors must have priority in this process. Especially the voices of those victims that have been silent for too long such as those families of the Disappeared profiled so movingly in a recent documentary.

For us, it is a critical part of creating a healed and reconciled society. And a society at peace with itself.

Central to that healing process is uncovering the truth about all killings and securing answers and a measure of justice for all victims and survivors. That includes getting to the truth of the appalling British State collusion with loyalist murder gangs that takes on a more sinister character with every new disclosure.

That collusion is truly shocking but it never ever justified a single IRA atrocity. And the IRA must come clean and tell the truth as well. And no IRA atrocity can ever justify Unionist politicians dismissing collusion. Such talk is not just insulting to victims and survivors.

It’s insulting to the hundreds of honest RUC officers who hunted down loyalist killers as well as IRA killers and brought them to justice.

Resolution on parades would require “genuine dialogue with residents” and in the absence of that “an independent adjudication body totally removed from politics and political parties with the power to make determinations and decisions with the force of law”.

And that sounds like a Parades Commission to me.

Regarding flags it is the SDLP’s view that in Public Spaces and in Public Buildings there must be a comprehensive approach to addressing matters of political and cultural identity that also includes emblems, symbols, languages and memorabilia.

The British and Irish Governments must be the co-guarantors of any agreement emerging from the Haass Talks. They must be fully engaged in any outcomes and exert the power and influence for a sustainable solution.

As we reflect on the Past, we must remember that today is the eve of Remembrance Sunday. Our thoughts are with all those who fell in both World Wars and their families and especially those from all traditions on the Island of Ireland.

On welfare reform:

Conference, much of today’s hardship is the effect of the deep and severe Tory welfare cuts and of the failure of the DUP/Sinn Féin axis to use the machinery of devolution to protect our most vulnerable people … We will fight the savagery of the welfare cuts to the very end.

Social justice also demands a health service where people have speedy access to treatment when they need it … The SDLP believe that a Commission of Health Care Experts should be established right away to examine why our hospitals cannot function more effectively to meet the reasonable needs and demands of people—when they have an illness, and how the Frontline Clinical Staff – Doctors, Nurses and paramedical staff can be better supported to do their jobs …

Social justice also demands access to affordable social housing particularly for young people who cannot afford a mortgage and a Housing Executive that is free from ministerial assault … The Housing Executive is one of the SDLP’s great achievements and we will fight to retain and reform it.

There was a call for a “prosperity process” …

Conference, social justice cannot flourish without prosperity … Indeed 15 years ago many of us expected a prosperity process; a mini Marshall Plan; to be constructed to underpin the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. There were promises – hopes were raised; and hopes were dashed. I am calling on the OFMdFM, the Executive and the British and Irish Governments, even at this late stage, to do all that is necessary to establish a meaningful prosperity process as a matter of urgency.

We need a prosperity process that will underpin the peace process and lay the foundations to create the well-paid jobs that would banish the spectre of youth unemployment and emigration that has brought so much heartbreak to our communities.

A prosperity process that would in time, crucially, permit the North to stand on its own feet, pay its own way and play its rightful role in the development of a buoyant all-island economy.

On education Alasdair McDonnell accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of “failing to keep their promise to have an Education and Skills Authority in place by the end of the year”. Post-primary transition was “in a state of chaos”.

The SDLP leader highlighted Northern Ireland’s poor record in claiming grants from the European Commission’s Research and Development fund compared with the rest of the island.

The Irish Government has kept VAT at 9% for the hospitality industry. Alasdair McDonnell called on the British Government to reduce the 20% VAT rate on Tourism and Hospitality Services in Northern Ireland.

One sentence on local government reform as the speech finally turned towards a conclusion.

On New Councils across the north the SDLP will work to deliver a reformed, efficient and effective type of local Government that is responsive to ordinary hard working people’s needs.

McDonnell family after speechThen the dream sequence … which one tweeter likened more to ABBA than Martin Luther King.

Fifty years ago Dr Martin Luther King mesmerised the world with his Washington “I have a Dream” Speech. Here in the presence of Dr King’s fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, our former leader John Hume: I am proud to tell you I too have a dream.

I have a dream of a new and Much better Ireland where our vision and all our hopes and ambitions for peace, reconciliation, social justice and Economic prosperity are finally realised; A New Ireland taking her place proudly in a brave new world at the heart of Europe and where we are at peace with ourselves and with Britain.

We in the SDLP are determined to ensure that we empower you to realise your dreams, hopes and ambitions both for yourselves and for your families.

Together we shall overcome.

The speech was long and at times dreary, devoid of applause or soundbites. (The speech began and ended with OneRepublic’s Counting Stars, a late choice.) It read as if it had been written by committee, with little care to spotlight fresh thinking and develop specific ideas. Eschewing a teleprompter, Alasdair McDonnell’s head was often down, finding his place in his notes. Sinn Fein and DUP were attacked; Peter Robinson got one mention, Martin McGuinness four, and Gerry Adams none.

After lunch, Shadow Secretary of State Ivan Lewis (introduced earlier as “Ian Lewis”) brought “fraternal greetings from your sister party”. He emphasied shared social welfare policies and principles:

[Lewis] How dare a cabinet of millionaires who live in houses with many spare rooms commonly known as mansions impose a bedroom tax on people who live in social housing and have the odd spare room. A Labour government will scrap the pernicious bedroom tax and this will also ensure no financial penalty for Northern Ireland if the Executive decided not to implement that policy.

Since moving to the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary of State role four weeks ago, Ivan Lewis says his three priorities have been:

To listen, to learn and then to provide leadership on the issues on which Hew Majesty’s Opposition can make a difference.

He repeated the “I’m neither a Catholic Jew nor a Protestant Jew – there is no such option” joke that was aired two weeks ago at the UUP conference.

Politics is usually about the future, but in the context of Northern Ireland, the best possible future is will always be undermined unless we adequately and appropriately deal with the past. For me to have met relatives of victims in the last few weeks has been the most powerful experience of them all. And I don’t believe that most politicians in Westminster have a clue about the trauma and the consequences of the experiences for those families; how it lingers, how it never goes away, how people have to get up every morning coping with the effects of that violence. We have to find a way together of doing something abut that … It’s about squaring questions of truth, of justice, of reconciliation with victims who want very, very different things. There are no easy solutions. But we owe it to them to put victims at the centre of any process that we support that comes out of the Haass talks.

Ivan Lewis said that primary responsibility for the outcome of the Haass talks “lies in Northern Ireland” but “there continues to be a key role for UK and Republic of Ireland governments”.

That’s why I’ve expressed serious concern in recent weeks at the lack of engagement from the Tory-led government in Westminster. Such complacency at a time of fragility on Northern Ireland is dangerous and it’s irresponsible. Of course I’m committed to working with the government in an unpartisan way, but I also must speak the truth on such a fundamental issue at such an important time.

Author Anne Cadwallader and Denise Fox (daughter of murdered SDLP “stalwart” and Seamus Mallon’s election agent Denis Mullen) addressed the SDLP conference along with the former deputy First Minister.

Alex Attwood updated conference on progress at the Haass talks. He echoed the comments of Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and asked the US Government to use “their appropriate good authority and influence to ensure that the talks progress and mature into an outcome that sees a comprehensive dealing with the past, that sees a parades commission as part of the solution in terms of parades and sees a comprehensive outcome in terms of the issue of political and cultural identity as manifest through flags, emblems and symbols”.

Mark Durkan (the MP) added his analysis.

[Durkan MP] If we are looking to the Irish Government and the British Government to be co-guarantors we need to remember that there needs to be vigilance there as well. Because they haven’t been very good guarantors in relation to the agreements in the past.

With lots of memoires being published, Mark Durkan reckoned that no conversation during historic processes were privileged any longer. He recalled being taken aside by Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern who said “I really don’t have a lot of time for the past, in fact to be honest I hate it when half the country’s being dug up looking for bodies”. However, Mark Durkan said that issues about the past needed to be resolved so they don’t become major issues for future generations.

Margaret Ritchie delivered a spirited speech that began by critiquing the failed five party Executive.

[Ritchie] Speech after speech this conference has highlighted our utter dismay at the way the DUP/SF regime has behaved at the heart of Government. With their narrow, selfish, sometimes downright nasty, approach, they have undermined the very essence of power-sharing and inclusiveness. And they have minimalized North/South.

They don’t seem to realise that it would be better for them as well as for the people we all serve if they had led the Executive in a constructive, collegiate manner. But instead we have had 6 years of carve-up and democratic abuse.

The spirit of optimism that accompanied the Good Friday agreement and the restoration of devolution in 2007 has completely evaporated. The tank of goodwill is now empty. And the continuing laps of honour being taken by Peter and Martin in the United States and elsewhere are now a form of self-mockery.

… any five party government that commences its mandate with a Programme for Government, cobbled together by anonymous advisers belonging to only two parties – which is then railroaded through the Executive with the other three unsighted parties expected to uphold it – is doomed to failure.

And that is what has been happening. The obnoxious insistence that other Ministers from other Parties are expected to implement the lifeless, cynical and unimaginative policies of the DUP and Sinn Fein. Half-baked policies from back-of-the-envelope horse trades between anonymous advisers.

The former SDLP leader criticised the unionist leafleting in Belfast “targeting Naomi Long about matters at Belfast Council, where she is not a member” along with “the deliberately provocative Castlederg Parade and then the ‘Gerry Kelly [book] show’”.

Sadly, Margaret left out spectacular section of her speech that was to have covered Peter Robinson, US therapy and Gerry Adams!

The present DUP/SF stalemate is characterised by three things: a two-party regime that is devoid of ideas; a two-party regime that is incompetent; a two-party regime that is corrupting our fledging democracy. And those three things are the complete antithesis of the SDLP.

As a party we are brimming over with good ideas but find them crowded out by DUP/SF resistance to even discuss them. As a party we have shown ourselves to be highly competent and effective in Government … As a party in contrast to those who corrupt democracy we look to improve it and to better days ahead. It was us who talked about ‘taking down the ugly scaffolding’ when the time was right.

And so Margaret Ritchie stuck her neck out [Ed – you meant stuck her neck on Alasdair’s chopping block?] and came out for opposition.

Yet as we take stock of the behaviour of the DUP and Sinn Fein and we look to their threats to take over the powers of those who refuse to do their bidding … We ask the question, is their behaviour likely to improve? And we have other indications this week that they were likely to do something at the Executive.

Colleagues, like Alex I sat around the Executive table for three years, he a little longer than me, seeing the very worst of DUP/Sinn Fein behaviour. Since then I have lived in hope that things might improve, but in all honesty they have got worse. Regrettably I don’t see the situation improving and yet all the while this proud party is being tarnished with their failure. And people are denied the exciting alternatives this Party can offer.

So therefore I come from a position where I I’m glad that Alasdair along with Dolores has opened up a debate on the question of going into opposition. I know that there are various views in the party on that. I don’t accept that official resources for opposition is an important consideration. For me, opposition is about serving people effectively and preserving the brand heritage and freedom of expression of our party.

And as the discussion gets underway, I will be arguing in favour of it …

We must remember a party in opposition would be a party with the people and for the people. Opposed to the failures and drudgery of the current system of government. Leading towards and becoming the new system of effective government. That is what the democratic political system is based upon; opposition leading to effective change.

And I suppose if I had my way, we would be in opposition by Christmas. But what we must do is ensure we take the correct political path for victims and the past, because it’s only the SDLP who can deliver for them.

Mark H Durkan shadowThe final major speech came from the party’s only Executive minister (and a potential victim of any move into opposition). Mark H Durkan gave a well-written and humorous speech. He began by describing the new role with more responsibility, work and scrutiny that he took on four months ago … though he says he’s enjoying being a husband!

[Durkan MLA] Taking over the reins from a particularly astute, technically brilliant, tenacious, successful man called Alex was never going to be easy: just ask David Moyes!

He countered claims that he was in breach of the ministerial code for pulling the planning bill saying:

They question the legality of my decision. We will not take lectures on legality from Sinn Fein or lessons in the law from the DUP when Edwin Poots has lost more cases than a low cost airline. We will strive to ensure a planning system that is fast, fair and fit for purpose.

The reform of local government had been “fraught with rows” with the “usual suspects putting politics before people, jockeying for position and power ignoring guidelines to ensure fairness and equality, ignoring the democratic will of the people”.

We are also working to strengthen the economy. Working with business to improve planning and reduce red tape. In fairness I don’t go as far as some ministers when it comes to cutting red tape, especially for Red Sky.

Mark H Durkan wanted to remind “the people of Dungiven” that Sinn Fein has voted against a proposal to reallocate money from the A5 to the A6.

He received a standing ovation at the end of his speech – which should probably have been scheduled for earlier in the day when the TV cameras were still in the room.

Fringe events on dealing with the past (with Michael Gallagher and Alan Brecknell on the panel) and polling were better attended than ones on warm homes, and contemporary slavery. And a social media fringe event at 10 in the morning may have been too early for the SDLP tweeters.

There was much about the conference that was disorganised. I didn’t speak to many party members who were impressed with their leader’s speech, but found that most considered it lacklustre and disappointing. Differences of opinion on whether the party should consider going into opposition are only one of a number of policy and strategy differences across the party. The SDLP still have a strong youth wing – but are their energies being focussed in constituency campaigning and winning seats? Or are they all striving to be elected representatives and party workers?

The party’s strapline is “hope and ambition for Ireland”. The ambition was there at today’s conference, but hope was largely missing. The SDLP seem resigned to waiting for Sinn Fein to trip up and offer them a chance for electoral success rather than believing that they can win back seats on the back of their distinctive and appealing message.

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  • Charles_Gould

    Hi Alan

    The McDonnell speech seems to have some interference.
    I can’t seem to get Margaret Ritchies speech to work.

  • Charles_Gould

    Sorry, Margaret Ritchie’s speech now working – very good speech so far.

  • The sound feed does buzz during the beginning of Alasdair McDonnell’s speech – the same problem affected the BBC’s feed! This afternoon’s speeches were captured from parking the recorder in front of one of the hall’s PA speakers!

  • Charles_Gould

    Alan do you think there was a vacuum caused by the absence of Conal McDevitt from the speakers?

  • Alan,
    Thanks for your (as usual) comprehensive, interesting and excellent post.
    A particular phrase caught my attention.
    “The SDLP still have a strong youth wing – but are their energies being focussed in constituency campaigning and winning seats? Or are they all striving to be elected representatives and party workers?”
    Perhaps this is more important to the party than they realise?

  • Charles_Gould

    fitzjameshorse1745 has also praised the strength of the youth wing.

    This is encouraging for the future of the SDLP.

  • Charles,
    I was highlighting the danger (which I think Alan was also) as well as the opportunity

  • Comprehensive review but too late at night for me to digest and nitpick.
    I spent a lot of time outside the main hall…and it was odd. I always prefer the informality to set pieces. I think its a better way to gauge the mood of the party. There is always too much ritual at conferences.
    I actually missed some of Alasdair’s speech and all of Margaret’s but by all accounts Alex was the best speech of the day.
    Opposition…I think there is a real debate to be had. and I’m neutral on it myself…and I even see merit in abstaining from or being minimalist at Stormont (although I need to think it thru).
    There was a certain “confidence” around….and I was not entirely convinced that all of it was justified.
    I was not there last night so I missed the walkout.
    I’m actually quite pleased about that.
    Forty years ago, I walked out on Conor Cruise O’Brien. Staging a walk out over something is a rite of passage of sorts.
    Interesting that three years ago, the SDLP Youth seemed like a novelty. Its inevitable that they were patronised.
    And now they are all grown up and cannot be patronised. They actually did too well last year…eight got elected to the Executive and there was always a danger that senior people would find them a bit irritating and no longer “cute”.
    But its funny how the narrative changes. The lazy cliche about SDLP is of middle aged or elderly men. That no longer seems the case. Arguably it is a mix of old and young ….maybe not enough middle aged to bridge the gap.
    The balance of probability is that some of the young ones will be elected to councils next year, which would complete the public face of the SDLP.
    On a personal note, I was glad to hear Brian Heading remind the Party of SinnF ein hypocrisy…of the days when SF family members sought the help of SDLP MLAs as councillors in approaching police stations etc.
    That would resonate with many.
    The SDLP is always at its best when it uses its own voice.

    Exhibitors…they frustrate me. Obviously a Charity cannot endorse a political party but there were enough public sector groups around who “use” the SDLP as natural allies AFTER Elections but would not give the SDLP an endorsement BEFORE an Election.
    What else?
    Confirmation that British Labour regard SDLP as a sister party and Labour NI is an embarrassing irrelevance but will send along some unfortunate deputy to Ian Ivan Lewis to address their conference next year.
    Slight hints that SDLP is getting thru to people on the Left with a former Green Party candidate from 2011 signed up.
    The Lucid Talk fringe meeting had a degree of good news.
    Incremental ..small but significant improvement.

    Low Point….I actually think the poor attendance in the main hall looked very bad….At times, I decided not to take photographs for my own blog because it would look bad.

  • Charles_Gould

    Bangordub the party leader’s speech mentioned that there was a renewal and energy now among activists on the ground creating a party with reinvigorated constituency work.

  • Bangor Dub
    Youth Politics is a bit like Youth Football.
    It can be a great team but necessarily only a small percentage get to play in the first team.
    I think there ARE dangers. I personally dont like that MetroTextual thing around QUB where they twitter with staffers and youth groups from other parties.
    Facebook and Twitter is NOT political engagement. Only a few will go into politics as a career but others will go into Law or public service or maybe work in lobbying, charities whatever……
    I think Mark Durkan said at a Youth Conference 18. Months ago that it is the duty of a Youth Group to be an embarrassment.
    So last night they were a bit silly.
    No harm done.
    A rite of passage.
    made me proud.

  • Charles_Gould

    I wonder if NI21 have an adult wing? (Joke).

  • Charles,
    Well I think pretty much every Party Leaders speech ever includes that sentence. Don’t You?

  • Charles_Gould

    Bangordub this was Alastair’s main aim as party leader, so encouraging to hear that it is now being delivered.

  • Alan,

    This must be the longest post in Slugger history–certainly the most comprehensive! I especially liked the way that the speaker combined the use of Northern Ireland and North and South in his speech. This demonstrates a much more serious attempt to engage with unionists than we usually get from SF. The line about not being lectured about legality from SF was also very good.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Opposition will come from the SDLP, only when opposition to opposition is not the majority view. If party members had to 100% agree on everything in any party, parties would not last.

  • Charles_Gould

    The SDLPs three MPs are pretty sure to be returned next time.

  • Charles_Gould

    Does anyone know if SDLP have a list of target Westminster seats? Presumably Armagh/Newry would be a possibility, given the travails and subsequent very low profile of the incumbent?

  • David McCann

    I think they’ll be happy to hold their seats. I would say they will be looking for increased majorities and a better vote in Newry/Armagh.

  • Primarily Westminster is a trial run for the Assembly.
    South Belfast is marginal, the others are not.
    Holding three…with an increased vote and analysing voting patterns in Newry-Armagh, Strangford, West Tyrone, North Antrim, South Antrim and Lagan Valley.
    Running younger candidates who have done well in councils in2014… All with an eye to 2016.

  • David McCann

    I agree with Fitz the councils will be a good baraometer for the party to perform well in W/minster and assembly. The more people they get elected in 2014 to build up a profile will be key for the party later on.

  • Charles_Gould

    Newry Armagh is ripe for a second SDLP MLA – someone with charisma that can be trialled in the Westminster.

    I also see West Belfast as a constituency that SDLP should target. It had had previous success in this one, and there is a large potential vote if more “on the ground” activism on social issues was present. This is a constituency that likes radical left politics.

  • “Does anyone know if SDLP have a list of target Westminster seats?”


    Their profile for target seats would be to look at areas where the nationalist electorate is either comfortably middle class, church going, or elderly. This is because SF is much better at working class younger districts.

  • sean treacy

    Did the SDLP debate fracking at their conference and if so what did they decide?

  • Charles_Gould

    The SDLP Envioronment Minister is against fracking (in broad terms) unless scientific evidence in its favour is overwhelming.

  • The SDLP will still need to play a largely defensive game in the next electoral cycle. They did not get a full quota of votes in North Belfast, West Belfast, Upper Bann, or West Tyrone, all constituencies where they won a single seat, so talk of two seats in any of those is deluded. Similarly, they were lucky to get two in South Belfast on 23.5%, and to get three in Foyle on 35.3%.

    I agree that there are potential gains. I was surprised not to see them get closer to gaining seats in Strangford and South Down last time. I agree that the numbers also look potentially promising in Newry and Armagh and Lagan Valley. But I think internally it should be considered a decent enough result in 2016 to hold what they currently have a bit more securely.

    The three Antrim seats are a different matter. The Shinners now have the advantage of sole incumbency on the Nationalist side. A truly vigorous candidate with a revitalised organisation behind him or her could reverse this in any of the three cases. But it’s a mountain to climb, and I would not recommend devoting resources there unless the overall situation starts to look a bit more promising.

  • sean treacy

    Charles,I asked did the conference debate fracking and what was the result?

  • Charles_Gould

    With the rise of Alliance, I can’t see Strangford being in SDLP reach.

  • Comrade Stalin


    The SDLP have come within a nose of nicking a seat in 2011, and were even closer in 2007 (as Nick Whyte said). If they put resource into that seat and gave it a good heave they should still be able to win it, especially given the fragmentation of the unionist vote that would be expected from McNarry’s UKIP departure.

  • Sean – pretty sure Mark H Durkan talks about fracking in his speech – audio above.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Nicholas Whyte (profile) 10 November 2013 at 5:39 pm
    The SDLP will still need to play a largely defensive game in the next electoral cycle. They did not get a full quota of votes in North Belfast, West Belfast, Upper Bann, or West Tyrone, all constituencies where they won a single seat, so talk of two seats in any of those is deluded. Similarly, they were lucky to get two in South Belfast on 23.5%, and to get three in Foyle on 35.3%.

    I agree that there are potential gains. I was surprised not to see them get closer to gaining seats in Strangford and South Down last time. I agree that the numbers also look potentially promising in Newry and Armagh and Lagan Valley. But I think internally it should be considered a decent enough result in 2016 to hold what they currently have a bit more securely.

    The three Antrim seats are a different matter. The Shinners now have the advantage of sole incumbency on the Nationalist side. A truly vigorous candidate with a revitalised organisation behind him or her could reverse this in any of the three cases. But it’s a mountain to climb, and I would not recommend devoting resources there unless the overall situation starts to look a bit more promising.
    I think the SDLP might also be challenging in Fermanagh South Tyrone as much as Antrim, Sinn Féin were a bit lucky to get three there and they’ve replaced at least one incumbent since.

  • And of course the fragmentation of the “letsgetalongerist” vote.
    NI21, Conservatives, Greens will likely be in the field as well as Alliance.
    Will McCarthy stand down before the Election to allow a new person to be known? Candidate….Duncan Morrow? Or a defeated Naomi Long (2015) or maybe Judith Cochrane will move from East Belfast.
    They need a big name…somebody from the “mainland” wont get the McCarthy vote on the Peninsula.
    Of course thats the same problem the SDLP have. Essentially there is a nationalist vote on the Peninsula and a nationalist “suburban vote”. The trick is to convince nationalists in (say) Newtownards to get their heads above the parapets.
    The councils will be the indicator but I would expect SDLP will run in every DEA.

    I would also expect the SDLP to go after the Alliance Party.
    The present scenario is that Alliance dont actually have to compete in more than nine or ten constituencies to get 7 to 10 seats.
    Were therefore have the 1960s scenario of Derry where votes in some wards were more valuable than other (west) wards.
    In those days it was the River Foyle which was the line of Gerrymander.
    A Party like the Alliance which can barely get a council seat outside Belfast and its suburbs is not cross-community.
    Obviously the SDLP compete against SF everywhere….that theres acrimony in Crossmaglen, Andersonstown, Kilwilkie etc….but west of the Bann and even in the Party as a whole, there is still no understanding that the Alliance Party is an enemy.

    Thats a lesson SDLP MUST learn.

  • sean treacy

    Alan ,I heard on Friday nights news that a motion on fracking was lost by 3 votes.What was that motion?The SDLP supporters on this site seem to be slightly evasive about any debate taking place.As someone who I have found to be a relatively impartial commentator.maybe you could find out.

  • Charles_Gould

    Yes i think that FST is ripe for an SDLP MLA.

  • “there is still no understanding that the Alliance Party is an enemy.

    Thats a lesson SDLP MUST learn.”


    I suppose that if the SDLP is having no luck against the Shinners it will be easier to take on Alliance. But Alliance won’t be a pushover, and taking on Alliance will probably impede any potential alliance with NI21 or the UUP in the Assembly. If the SDLP is limited to being able to grow only at the expense of Alliance, this will hardly increase its geographic range.

  • Charles_Gould

    “I suppose that if the SDLP is having no luck against the Shinners it will be easier to take on Alliance”

    I don’t really agree with this approach. Alliance has only a few MLAs. There are more that belong currently to SF. SDLP has had its MLAs taken in the main by SF. So it is from SF that SDLP can wiin back.

  • Tmitch….
    I think youre missing my point.
    When SDLP is gathered Conference, its inevitable that the digs are at Sinn Fein. It resonates because whether the delegates are from Belfast, Newry, Strabane or Derry….everyone will have a Sinn Fein story at council level.
    But bringing up Alliance is/was pointless. They dont exist West of the Bann and its highly unlikely people there will have ever seen an Alliance Party member.
    Where exactly are SDLP and Alliance in conflict on councils…ignoring places where one or other is one or two members in unionist dominated councils.
    SDLP effectively doesn’t exist in Larne, Carrick, North Down, Ards, Newtownabbey.

    So any real criticism of Alliance from the podium ….whether knockabout stuff or serious would hardly be recognised.
    The SDLP attitude to Alliance has been that they are “harmless” …a decent #2 for people without a nationalist….
    I think thats been a mistake. It has given Alliance a permenant foothold in places where SDLP have never really made a proper effort.
    Like Holywood DEA for example….Nobody has even had the opportunity to vote SDLP.
    Now Im not suggesting that Newtownards, Bangor, Ballyclare, Bushmills will elect a SDLP person in the near future or at all….but there needs to be something to stop that leakage of votes.
    Simply put Alliance are not harmless and a real danger.
    Particuarly as SF are an unholy alliance (no pun intended) to marginalise the SDLP.
    Therefore SDLP needs to be aware of that danger. Slugger archives will show I was saying this two and a half years ago.
    The #2 votes are as precious as #1.
    Giving a #2 to Alliance in East Belfast is madness (not that SDLP got many #1) or in 2016, helping Alliance get past NI21 or Green is madness.
    Ive never been canvassed by Alliance in my life….but what exactly does an Alliance candidate say to a SDLP voter in Bangor! Carrick etc in 2016…..give us your #2 to help us screw your party.

    I am not saying SDLP should switch their attack to Alliance.
    rather I am saying legitimate SDLP targets are Fermanagh-South Tyrone, North Antrim and South Antrim. That does not affect Alliance.
    But legitimate targets are Strangford which may affect Alliance.
    And restricting Alliance to one seat in East Belfast is a victory for SDLP.

    I think one of the Alliance posters on here has previously stated that their second preference would go to DUP or SF…before SDLP.
    Its entirely logical for an alliance member to make that choice because its in the interests of Alliance Party to squeeze UUP or SDLP.
    They’ve already succeeded. They have maximised 50,000 votes to being more valuable than the 90,000 SDLP and 90,000 UUP votes.

    Its very much in the interests of SDLP and UUP to clip Alliance wings.
    And theres a few choices out there….Green, NI21.

  • Charles_Gould

    FJH I heard an alliance person stating that they sought to take an MLA seat from SDLP in South Belfast. Would that be credible?

  • sean treacy

    Fitz.I presume you then think SDLP no 2s should go to SF!

  • sean treacy

    Fitz,I see “Sir Alisdair” standing to attention at the cenotaph today in the company of the overseas battalion of the UDR and other assorted British killing machines.Hard to reconcile that with releasing photos from your conference of Anne Cadwallader and her book: “lethal allies” Would you care to comment?

  • Charles_Gould


    We have leaders across Ireland at Remembrance Services. Enda Kenny in Enniskillen and (leader of the SDLP’s sister party in Dublin, i.e. Labour) Eamon Gilmore in Belfast. SDLP has taken part in these services for a long time, as now have southern parties too. New SF Mayor – goes to America to avoid admitting his party won’t let him attend.

  • Mr Gould….it is certainly possible but its unlikely.
    In so far as Alliance have any realistic targets, the top one would be the South Belfast seat.
    The most vulnerable Alliance seat ….the second seat in East Belfast and the Strangford seat.
    In 2011, some Alliance folks were talking up East Derry and even North Belfast.
    The lowest prospects for Alliance are seven, the highest nine or ten.

    Mr Treacy….if you read earlier in the thread, I said that no Party can realistically advise its supporters to give a second preference to any other Party.
    That would be a pact….and it would be divisive.
    Indeed I dont think it advisable for any politician to publicly state his or her second preference.
    I am however NOT (yet) a politician and I am on record as stating that I have only ever voted for two parties since my first vote in 1970.
    I have also stated that I have never given a third preference to any party.
    My second preference is SF.
    Thats the norm for most SDLP voters, outside Belfast.
    Had I been an active SDLP member after leaving around 1981, then I would have an entirely different perspective..
    In Fermanagh-South Tyrone Id certainly expect the SDLP to take a seat.But they can only do so by persuading SF voters to change their vote.
    To some extent there is a different emphasis between SDLP voters and SDLP members.
    And indeed between SF voters (who see SDLP as second best) and SF members who see SDLP as enemies.

    As I have said Alliance have no problem with principle in realising their success depends on SDLP and UUP failure. and alliance are the clients of DUP-SF.
    If Alliance have no problem with DUP and SF “history” why should I?
    Of course ordinary Alliance voters see SDLP and UUP as “nicer” than SF and DUP.

  • sean treacy

    Charles,Glad to see that you have no problem with the crown forces and all their baggage.Now perhaps Fitz will let us know if he shares your views.

  • “Sir” Alasdair is just a cheap shot.
    By way of consistency I should point out that I objected to similar cheap shops on Slugger O’Toole…directed at Gerry Adams and Martin McCguinness …baron Northstead and all that cheapness.

    The thing is SDLP politicians are in a more difficult position than SF ones.
    had a Deputy First Minister from SDLP met Mrs Windsor last year, the SinnF ein publicity machine would scream “treachery” but when Martin McGuinness does it, its statesmanship.
    Meanwhile the Mayor for all the citizens of Belfast dashes off to USA to avoid laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. I dont know how many of his eight chaplains he took with him. maybe his Poet Laureate could write a Poem….

  • Mr Treacy, I cant believe you find my views so interesting.
    I’m not even that interested in my own views.

  • Charles_Gould

    Eamon Gilmore said 50,000 people from south were in the second world war. He said he did come north last year to take part in the Belfast service and he recognised the strong tradition of rememberance in NI and that he and Enda Kenny who was in Enniskillen wanted to show that Dublin was supportive of that tradition, that this was leadership.

  • sean treacy

    Fi tz,I couldn’t resist using”Sir Alasdair”after seeing Danny Morrison using it at the time of the spads debate.But enough hilarity,as someone who enjoyed read ing your analysis in the past ,I suspect your hearts not really in it when you defend the cenotaph disgrace.Since you rejoined the SDLP you have taken positions which would have been anathema to you only a few months ago .I cannot understand how you can reconcile being in a party along with the likes of Mr Gould an ultra exponent of the “letsgetalongism that you have so long railed against

  • Mc Slaggart


    “Confirmation that British Labour regard SDLP as a sister party”

    I think its that link with does so much damage to the sdlp. Westminster is not Olympus!

    If sf send their people south at least they are getting something out of it. What does the sdlp get out of sending its best to that strange Otherworld?

  • sean treacy

    Charles, Those being remembered today included those up to their necks in collusion and murder in Ireland and other conflict zones.Those armed forces actually present today are still serving imperialism as part of a force that has killed tens of thousands in Iraq and afghanistan

  • I dont really think it does any damage to SDLP.
    It does damage to the ridiculous non-party that is Labour in NI.
    I dont actually think that Mr Gould is a member of SDLP.
    I dont defend the Cenotaph thing. What I am saying is that elected politicians have a duty.
    Certainly I am the kinda person who dashes out to the bathroom to avoid this kinda thing….but I am not (yet) Leader of SDLP.
    When Mary Lou or Niall O’ Donnghaile is leading SinnFein, they will be never away from the Cenotaph and the Sinn Fein membership will be applauding the VISION .
    When that happens, I will still be dashing off to the bathroom to avoid it.

  • Charles_Gould

    Just to put it on record I am not a member of any party.

  • sean treacy

    If youre not a member of any party ,I find it strange that you defend the SDLP even when their spokespersons do and say things that run totally contrary to your professed views.You profess to be pro choice but not a word about the SDLPs disgraceful stance on Marie Stopes.You claim to be anti selection but not a word when Dolores Kelly describes SFsnon selective policy as “hatred of Grammer Schools” and “class warfare”.Seems like “my party right or wrong” to me!

  • Charles_Gould

    Well I am quite clear on my own views so you can take it that there are areas of disagreement.

  • “I am however NOT (yet) a politician and I am on record as stating that I have only ever voted for two parties since my first vote in 1970.
    I have also stated that I have never given a third preference to any party.
    My second preference is SF.
    Thats the norm for most SDLP voters, outside Belfast.”


    This is one of the chief reasons why we ended up with the Assembly being parked in 2002 and then the SF-DUP duopoly coming to power in 2007 and remaining in power since then. Tribal voting. Better to vote for an extremist from my own tribe than for a moderate from the other tribe. Had SDLP and UUP voters supported each other across the sectarian divide from 1998 to 2002 the history of NI would have been very different. Admittedly, the voters weren’t encouraged to do this by their respective party leaders. But then again the settlement negotiated by the SDLP and the UUP did not encourage or reward such moderation.

  • I vote on the basis of my Principles (arguably I dont have that many) and the narrow self interest of me and my family.
    I cant see any circumstance in which Id vote unionist or conservative or “letsgetalongerist”.

  • Lionel Hutz

    I would vote SDLP no 1 and if they would give me an option at no 2. After that,I would consider giving a further preference to a candidate if I liked him or he. I didn’t like any others in Newry Armagh but the next time I vote will be in West Tyrone and I might give Barry McElduff a transfer (not like he’ll need it).

    I agree with FJH that the Alliance party is an enemy of any SDLP supporter. I would go further and state that the Alliance should be its chief target at this time and that the SDLP should be targeting them more than any other party. Albeit that I think that they should be doing it quietly and in a subtle way. I have been pursuaded by FJH’s description of the faux letsgetalongerists.

    Of course, being a resident of West Tyrone it is all irrelevant to me. lol

  • Lionel Hutz

    By the way, it seems to me that the reporting of the conference has been much more positive than commentary on slugger

  • Mr Hutz…would you consider moving to Strangford or Lagan Valley? 🙂

  • Mr Hutz,
    There are really only two reports.
    Alan’s is actually fair enough and although there is a little grudging in places, its sorta balanced by comments of mine which are partisan but accurate.
    Needless to say SDLP do not control what I say.
    Dr McCanns report/analysis …I dont take seriously.
    And I’m already looking forward to not taking his next analysis seriously.

    Id sum it up as low key…and a curious mixture of confidence (delegates were effectively reporting to each other in the bars and over coffee on the year they had just had….and for the most part…that was positive). Yet it was also deflated by Conalls resignation. It would have been more upbeat if Conall had been there.
    The bright spots were the Youth….and West Tyrone…..

    The scheduling was totally wrong. Delegates and journalists effectively abandoned the Conference after Alasdair’s speech and that seemed a discourtesy to the motions and speakers.

  • Lionel Hutz

    You’ll just have to do with me keeping them at bay in the west. Lol. Can’t be bothered with all those metrotextuals east of the Bann. And I’m only 28. Maybe I should give up the law and stand for election

  • David McCann


    Where have the positive reports been of the SDLP conference?

    Sunday Politics y’day pretty much panned his speech-fair enough Alan was one of the panelists but where is this positive reporting?


    My thoughts on the speech-correspond with Alan’s and we in no way liased with each other on our posts. Again they were just my thoughts that’s all.

  • David McCann

    I’d also point out my thought’s were on Alasdair’s speech not the entire conference. I did find other aspects of the conference, Attwood/Richie and Mark H Durkan’s performances as excellent. Plus I agree I think the SDLP youth did very well in their actions too.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Those saying that Alliance and Sinn Féin have been the bane of the SDLP are both wrong, apathy more than anything has been. The SDLP increased their vote in one constituency, but because the Sinn Féin and Alliance vote fell, maybe due to a SDLP swing the incumbent MLA Tommy Burns lost his seat.

    So to me, I make no appologies, Apathy is Enemy No. 1

  • mjh

    “I have only ever voted for two parties since my first vote in 1970.
    I have also stated that I have never given a third preference to any party.
    My second preference is SF.
    Thats the norm for most SDLP voters, outside Belfast.” – fjh

    While fjh’s statement encapsulates a broad truth, that the majority of voters stick within their blocks, the actual picture is more complex than that. And it appears to be getting more so.

    I am currently analysing voter transfers Assembly Elections and would then like to add at least a sample from Council Elections in order to make the best estimates of the trends.But it is possible to say that block voting is not absolute.

    Take the SDLP for example.

    About 25% of its 1st preferences voters are personal voters. They do not give their second preference to an SDLP candidate even when there is one available. between 5 and 10 % will transfer to an available SF candidate, between 5 and 10% to Alliance, Green or Socialist if available, around 5% to a Unionist and about 2% will not transfer at all.

    There is restricted evidence in Assembly results of what happens when the last SDLP candidate is eliminated. What there is suggests that about 45% to 65% transfer to SF, 30 to 45% to Alliance if available, 2 or 3 % to Unionist and 5 to 10 chose not to transfer at all.

    The evidence in Assembly Elections for what happens when there are no more SDLP, SF or Alliance candidates available is even more limited. Up to 99% of SDLP voters transfered to chose between two unionist parties in Lagan Valley in 2011, while in 2007 around 24% did so in East Belfast and 76% in North Belfast, but only 10% in East Londonderry.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I transferred 5th to Willy Hay (or first after the SDLP) not because I had any real unionist leanings but because he’s been a good speaker and has done a lot for the local Harbour Commission. Unionists do similar things transferring to good SDLP reps or even hypothetically Sinn Féin reps non-tactically.