SDLP Conference: Your task Dr. McDonnell if you choose to accept it

You’re the leader of the SDLP, your party was once the dominant force within nationalism, your predecessor was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and you have just led your party to its worst ever Europen and Local government result. This is the baggage that Alasdair McDonnell walks into his conference with on Friday.

There are enough people about the place pointing out where the SDLP has gotten it wrong and whether they have a future or not, but I want to focus on what McDonnell needs to do at this conference to help bring the party back from the brink.

Here are my three simple steps that I think can make a real difference;

1) Define a post-Good Friday Agreement vision-Nothing sets a persons eyes rolling more than when you hear an SDLP politician talk about the Good Friday Agreement and how the SDLP delivered it. But, what they haven’t figured out yet is that the general public thanked the SDLP for that at the 1998 Assembly Election and politics is actually about what have you done for me lately. They need to stop talking about the Agreement and pitch what they are actually about in the here and now.

2) Opposition-Like the UUP, the SDLP need a coherent policy on opposition. When you go to one of these party conferences and are struggling for a story, just got and find a stray Cllr or MLA and ask about opposition and hey presto you’ve got some copy. McDonnell needs to nip this in the bud and set out a process for the SDLP to leave the Executive. As I heard him speak on the Sunday Politics, I couldn’t get the suicide scene from Hook out of my head where the Captain proclaims loudly

There’s no stopping me this time Smee…This is it Smee, don’t you dare try to stop me this time…Smee try to stop me

McDonnell is a bit like this with opposition, he threatens it, gets to the stage where he might do it, but looks around to find somebody to stop him. Either commit to the Executive and say no opposition, or pull out.

3) Get clear blue water between SDLP & Sinn Fein-The debacle over things like the SPAD Bill and the voting against the budget, whilst staying in the Executive merely puts the SDLP in the same bracket as Sinn Fein in most cases. Those who do vote, see no difference and where they see Sinn Fein in a confident manner, people are more likely to support them. For those who don’t vote, they just sit at home because they don’t see the SDLP are a strong alternative. This is key, for every 10 votes the SDLP have lost, just three 3 have gone to Sinn Fein, the rest are staying at home. McDonnell needs to get their backsides off the sofa and to the polling station.

None of this is easy, but the SDLP cannot afford to lose any more ground. I have always held the view that once the SDLP hit 10 seats or below then it is game over for the party as a major force. This conference will be important and we just have to wait 6 days to see if McDonnell is up to the task.

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  • Ernekid

    I’m a middle class nationalist with a real dislike of the Cult of Gerry Adams that is Sinn Fein but personally I can’t find myself to be able to back the SDLP. The party is totally moribund under McDonnell, his leadership is non existent and he’s a total charisma vacuum. I don’t think the party has had a real alternative potential leader since Connell McDevitt left. Unless the Party gets it stuff together itll die a death and frankly it might be needed. It’s been trading its achievements of the 70s and 90s for too long.

    What’s the point of the SDLP in 2014? I don’t know and I’m pretty sure its leadership doesn’t know either.

  • chrisjones2

    The only way to break sectarian politics here is to create a vibrant middle ground.The SDLP must be part of that but shows no sign of wanting to go there. While its sits with SF its doomed to gradually lose its base and fade away

    Does the Leader realize that? Doubt it

    Does he realize the kudos he might get from the whole electorate from breaking first to create the middle ground and the electoral advantage that might flow from that? Doubt it

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    David- ” Your the leader of the SDLP “- dear God no-Dr Who McDonnell MP MLA leads by greed as he takes all the wages home-( to be leader of the SDLP is a fate worse than Political death )-

    ” Opposition “- I don’t think the SDLP have it in them – they love being in the Executive but like pretending to the people that they are not in Government -they would have turned down the extra 100 million and still don’t realise that the vote to keep or get rid of the budget is still seven weeks away-.

    ” For every 10 votes the SDLP has lost “-

    God took those voters when they died and there is no youth following the stoops at all-let the SDLP slip away in Peace- the Stoops are dead – long live democracy-

  • Croiteir

    The raison d’etre of the SDLP was fulfilled with the GFA, this function was to campaign for the best deal for nationalists as the big picture, and secure the odd crust instead of crumbs in the small picture. As McCann says they need to develop a new purpose. But their problem is how to define it. The conglomeration of red and green is no longer tenable. Are you for “Northern Ireland” or Ireland? Do not tell me both are achievable, they are not. Sinn Fein are for Ireland, anything done for the six counties are solely done for the purpose of the entire country, or at least they lead us to believe that.
    If you want to be partitionists,or at best neutral, then you are no longer relevant, the Alliance will fulfil that function, so why would nationalists vote for you?
    That is what has happened, Alliance exists for those nationalists in no hoper seats who wish to vote strategically.
    The SDLP simply is not green enough, to willing to accept anything that unionists wish to offer at any price, for nationalists to support, well at least this nationalist anyway.
    To be relevant to the new dispensation, (where is the Listerine?), we need a party that is more central on the economy and more socially conservative. Otherwise nationalists who do not agree with the liberalism of SF will not vote, they do not need to. The SDLP cannot do this, it has too many reds.
    The SDLP are finished.

  • chrisjones2

    “he takes all his wages home”?

    What a sin

    “they love being in the Executive but like pretending to the people that they are not in Government”
    Like SF

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    ” What a sin “-

    It would be a sin for any SDLP member to take home 2 or more different Political wages- there feet would not touch the ground as they would be kicked out of the Stoops- but the SDLP leader can get away with it because there is not one SDLP member who has the gumption to stand up to the boss and ask for equality amongst themselves – all for one and the SDLP number one is all for himself-

  • Dan

    The sooner this pathetic party dies a death the better. If it goes, Labour will have no excuse but to form in NI, as opposed to referring voters to its ‘sister party’…a party sectarian to the core, despite its high opinion of itself.
    ..and despite the woeful calibre of Labour politicians at the moment, the sooner the sectarian stranglehold of politics in NI is broken, the better for everyone’s future.

  • delphindelphin

    Is this the same Councillor McIvor of Cookstown DC who gets over ten grand in ‘expenses and allowances’ a year yet is more often absent from meetings than in attendance. I also notice he does not appear to be an elected representative on the new ‘super council’ I wonder why.

  • chrisjones2

    yeah its almost as bad as owning houses in belfast and donegal and louth and living in all 3 simultaneously

    Tell me by the way – where does Gerry Pay his tax – North or South of the border?

  • Tacapall

    “For those who
    don’t vote, they just sit at home because they don’t see the SDLP are a
    strong alternative”

    Thats a sweeping statement to make David one that certainly doesn’t apply to all those Irish republicans or nationalists who believe Irish people should take no part in British politics. Dictatorship is not democracy when some unelected old lady and our British appointed overlord have the final say in any laws elected politicians wish to enact in this part of Ireland.

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    I hear there is a good pay off for those who have served three or more terms kid-

    Maybe you should have put your name down to see if your good self could have got elected-( are you going to cry again )-

  • honest joe

    I think the SDLP should join forces with UUP, ALLIANCE, PUP etc etc. The SDLP and UUP et al are useless. They have absolutely NO SWAY in directing the way NORNIRON is being dragged. SF & DUP are calling all the shots and the rest of the over paid muppets in Stormont are excess baggage.

  • Bryan Magee

    Without being partisan I thought Alasdair McDonnell performed very well on today’s Sunday Politics in Northern Ireland:

    *Defended election results that saw lots of new young female councillors replace a lot of male old-timers (moving on after council reorganization); showing that the gender diversity of representation was improved and the incumbency problem (many old timers standing aside for the new councils) had been seen off.

    *Pointed out new names for the future. Lots of new young talent coming up the ranks in Belfast, Omagh, Derry; geographically across the board.

    *Clarified the position on opposition.

    *Welcomed apparent signs of flexibility from the DUP on Welfare Reform.

    *Clarified the position on electoral pacts.

    I thought a good , robust, interview.

    I noticed some people complaining about the SDLP not being a brave political party, not taking risks. I think that’s unfair; I would say that the SDLP’s story is one of bravery and consistency. If there is a fault is is that they have put the broader interests of the peace process ahead of partisan interests – but that is only a fault if you take a very narrow view of what politics is about.

  • delphindelphin

    Served three terms but don’t attend the meetings – sunshine

  • Brian Walker

    David Its been pretty clear for a long time what the challenges are,Any suggestions for new ideas on how to meet them? In a 108 member Assembly the SDLP is unlikely to disappear any time soon. It’s appeal seems to be to the more professional ageing Catholic middle class which abhors Sinn Fein’s origins. Active localism in the Assembly and new council areas and an active cross community position to improve services including education seems to be fruitful ground particularly where Alliance barely exists. And follow the modern nationalism of the southern majority which the young SDLP helped to devise in the first place, rather than the nervous mini-me SF which only parades their weakness, In other words, start defining a centre and head for it. Lead rather than follow. The talk of the SDLP’S demise is wishful thinking but could become self fulfilling.

  • Bryan Magee

    Excellent post as ever.

  • Kevin Bell

    Nail on head, sir.

  • Megatron_

    Gerry is a PAYE worker in ROI so he pays tax there at source. If he is tax resident in NI he should also pay tax there but due to double taxation agreement the amount of tax due would be very small and possibly zero. Not sure why it’s relevant here.

  • chrisjones2

    Its very relevant because the question is where is he domicile and where does he pay all his taxes. He seems all at sea in this.When questioned about the water tax he said it didn’t apply to him because he lived with his family in Belfast. Thats a different story to the one he swore in his election in Louth. Then there is his third home in Donegal to consider.

    So where does he pay his tax?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I quite agree. I often quote Paddy Ashdown’s phrase “muscular liberalism” (and you don’t have to be ex- special forces to deliver it). Their challenge is that of many moderate parties: portray the centre ground as a good place to be on principle, not a 2nd-best mud heap of compromise. It actually shouldn’t, in theory, be a difficult argument, given NI’s last 40-50 years. But I do think the SDLP have held back somewhat from making it.

    Of course, as a big critic of John Hume, I’d put a lot of that down to the dead-end ‘green’ direction he took the party. They became too much a partisan nationalist party, then when SF “went legit” found they were second best in a new stridently partisan world. Hume-Adams did not have to mean allowing SF to tell the story of the Troubles, but that’s what happened. The SDLP needs to be part of the corrective process that is going on now and it can benefit from that.

    SDLP can synonymous with fairness, conciliation, justice – but in my view it can only do that credibly if it looks again at what the nationalist narrative of the Troubles has turned into and seeks to tell a different, truer, fairer story. It can do this by being at the forefront of action over victims, truth recovery and so on, but also as being clear-minded champions of basic morality, contrasted with SF’s smoke and mirrors, moral relativism, cover-up and half-truths. People want, the polls suggest, genuine cross-community co-operation and the SDLP ought to be way more credible in that area. Work on that and make real connections with moderate unionists and don’t be embarrassed about that. Flag up SF for the divisive force they are. The SDLP are a credible party of compromise and reconciliation; SF are not. Pushing the reconciliation agenda, very heavily, would be a win-win for the SDLP: good for NI and good for them politically, as SF are nowhere on this.

    So I hope Alasdair McDonnell takes some risks and sets out a moderate, centrist stall – and does that by also by being much more outspoken about SF. Be emotive and put noses out of joint if you have to, even lose some voters in the short term. But win the argument. Do that and it might then start to attract more of the bright young people it needs to regenerate itself.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Longer term, I would like to see that too. A truly non-sectarian party of the centre-left would be fantastic. I’m no SDLP fan, but I think a stronger SDLP in the short to medium term is desirable, alongside a ‘unionist’ Labour Party which eventually could merge.

  • tmitch57

    The SDLP in its first decade was a rather muddled compromise among social democrats, Irish democrats who rejected both NI and violence and Irish who wanted a reformed NI based on power sharing. The social democrats have largely left but it is still divided between those who want to put a united Ireland first and those who want to live as equals in a province based on power sharing. The way to square these two is to compromise and simply agree to make NI work until nationalists are a majority. The big question then becomes how to go about this: in government as a junior partner to the SF/DUP duopoly or in opposition possibly alongside the UUP and Alliance? The latter position will be difficult to argue for and enact without an agreement at least with one of these two parties if not both. Nesbitt appears to think that any move away from unionist tribalism will collapse his party by causing major defections to the DUP. Alliance is simply enjoying its moment in the sun with two ministries. But if the SDLP adopts the UUP approach it will continue to lose ground to the Shinners. So it may have to take a chance and go from opposition on its own and then lure one of the other two parties over to its side.

  • Megatron_

    Simple answer to your question is “he pays tax in both ROI and UK”. Not sure what the point of answering is because your opinion won’t change one iota.

  • Comrade Stalin

    But Labour do have an excuse not to form in NI. It’s because imported parties that have no natural base here cannot win votes.

  • Granni Trixie

    Whilst it is one thing for political parties to co-operate on occasion, talk of sdlp,UUP and Pup getting together to perhaps form an opposition is uninformed of the reality. In the context of NI, people tend to belong to whichever party holds an analyses/solutions with which they identify.
    Parties internal cultures are also likely to be different. For instance, you do not hear from Alliance (my party) talk of doing what’s best for “the unionist family”.Or nationalist family – consistent with a dominant ideology of cross-community, bridgebuilding, anti-sectarianism.
    I’m not saying that it could never happen just that forming a coalition to oppose government in practice would be extremely difficult to make work.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think the Sinn Féin vote is saturated in the North, I don’t know where you get these 3 votes in 10, there are a lot of Sinn Féin voters who would not have voted for them prior to the ceasefires. They’ve won new voters who would not have voted before.