SDLP need a ‘violent storm’ or two to learn how to sail a ‘ship of war’…

I remember being asked, rather pointedly by one leading Pol Corr why I even bothered turning up for the SDLP’s Newcastle conference which elected Margaret Ritchie as party leader. I was then told, in no uncertain terms, “they don’t matter any more”

This is the wilderness pit that the likes of the SDLP and Ulster Unionists have been cast into by the media. Getting out of it won’t be quick or easy. For now the chosen tactic is to slowly grow its elected representation.

This was the focus of their conference PEB, which was head and shoulders above the leader’s speech (about which more later):

Like other minor parties in the Executive, they are operating with an extremely limited sets of cards in an increasingly rigged political game which deems them irrelevant.

The party leader’s focus has been on building its offering from the ground up. But in the prioritisation of ground over air war, some important things are going unattended to.

Two issues highlight this better than most:

Firstly the belated push to go into opposition from McDonnell’s predecessor Margaret Ritchie came with an admirable clarity too often missing during her own leadership.

Opposition could be a good tactic if you do it rather than just talk about it out of school. It’s NOT a good tactic if the only aim is to gain tactical advantage for your party over another. This is how the UUP obligingly killed their own oppositional fox.

Secondly, there are actually very few votes available to the SDLP by hitting the DUP. Back in the day, attacking big house unionism and its anti democratic reflexes was a big vote winner.

But that was: when the SDLP was the ONLY competitive nationalist party; and before the Belfast Agreement and Hume’s ‘agreed Ireland’ approach to politics became axiomatic to the new settlement.

It’s not as though this is misunderstood by the party. Speaking yesterday just before the leader’s speech, Alex Attwood noted the importance of that legacy:

…years ago John Hume changed the political language of Irish Democracy. In one phase, politics pivoted and everything changed. His language was that of accommodation between the traditions.

We hold to the politics of partnership and accommodation. Not the mangled distorted version that resides up in Stormont Castle. But a deep accommodation, a deep partnership with unionism. We do not resile from that.

In fact a ‘deep partnership with unionism’ is the only way this complicated Good Friday contraption can actually work, and the only way it will be improved and streamlined over the years ahead.

This is where, I suspect, the muddle that David talked about arises from. It also arises from the fact that too many would be or former generals are directing their troops in the direction of their own choice.

As for the speech itself, it was the third rambling pointless cut and paste in a row. They say that even if you lose your speaking notes, any decent presenter ought to be able to provide his/her audience with gist of what s/he intended to say.

But this speech failed every element of Simon Armitage’s recommended essentials of a good speech: logos (appeal to logical sense); ethos (appeal on the ‘right’ grounds); and pathos (appeal to the emotions).

Instead it is stuffed with meaningless jargon. Some of it familiar, if derivative, lines like ‘being at the heart of Europe’. Others are just odd inversions of current cliches, like the ‘prosperity process’.

There’s no specificity either. Telling the party faithful that Alex Attwood “served us all brilliantly as a Minister”, is useless without naming achievements in matters which matter to voters.

Of course speeches don’t win elections, and not every one needs to be epic. But judging from similar spelling mistakes to those from previous years, I’d venture a guess this was likewise underprepared and kept under glass until the very last minute.

A good start would be to find a new speech writer for next year (sooner would be better). Party activists will need some air cover if they are to achieve the leader’s tough ambitious seat targets for next year.

Seeding a bit of trouble for your rivals is what Alastair Campbell advised the Tories after the 2005 UK General Elections. Although the rough currents may then trouble everyone, they might also take this cue from Greek tragedian Aeschylus:

I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning to sail my ship.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty