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.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.