Review of the SDLP conference – lacking passion and oomph … perhaps waiting for a new leader #sdlp14 [audio]

SDLP delegatesThe SDLP conference took place on Friday and Saturday in the Ramada Hotel. Using the same venue as the UUP’s get-together four weeks ago, the nationalist party had chosen to divide the main ballroom in half, swapping delegate seats for more exhibitor space. But it wasn’t just the layout and configuration that contrasted with their unionist cousins.

This year’s SDLP conference lacked passion. That’s not entirely true: on Saturday afternoon Dolores Kelly and Alex Attwood delivered speeches with gusto and plenty of heart. But alarmingly, most of the Saturday sessions at the party’s annual conference were on the whole unexciting and the leader’s address lacked oomph.

Someone this week talked to me about the uselessness of “leaders without followers”. Alasdair McDonnell falls into this category. His stumbling leader’s speech was relatively mundane with few elector-friendly ideas, and lacked the rises and falls that make a political speech memorable. He talked about vision, yet the “New SDLP” seemed very like the current one, and he failed to boost morale and excite his audience.

Whatever internal restructuring and reform he has delivered cannot possibly outweigh the lack of vigour in the party that are mostly in neutral gear waiting for the opportunity to select a new leader rather than confidently accelerating towards the next election.

As expected, Mairia Cahill dominated the minds of many delegates. She addressed a well attended fringe meeting on “No Compromise on Truth and Accountability” at lunchtime. While no longer in the building, Mairia dominated the Justice, Policing and Parades session later on Saturday afternoon, featuring in an emergency motion and giving deputy leader Dolores Kelly the opportunity to attack Gerry Adam’s poor memory.

While Mairia’s plight at the hands of the republican movement provided plenty of opportunity to criticise Sinn Féin, being known for opposing Sinn Féin isn’t what will make the SDLP distinctive to voters and bring about electoral success.

Progress at the current round of talks was castigated. And if Sinn Fein pull off a deal to reduce the number of seats in each Assembly constituency to five, the SDLP will be fighting for every vote to avoid in a series of tight races across Northern Ireland.

After two years, Alasdair McDonnell has finally modified his language towards opposition and it seems that it would only take a couple of dominoes to fall – and some structural support – for him to be comfortable withdrawing from the Executive. Given the isolation of the party’s only minister Mark H Durkan – the only minister who voted against the budget (definitely distinctive) and the one facing a Judicial Review launched by another minister – holding their breath and jumping out of the Executive airlock in the direction of opposition should be seriously considered sooner rather than later.

The SDLP realise that until they have identified a replacement leader, they have to hold onto and tholl their current one. Alex Attwood is clearly one of the most comfortable communicators in the party. But could his detractors accept him as a caretaker leader until someone like Nichola Mallon (with experience as a SPAD as well as mayoral duties) can be co-opted into the Assembly and returned at the next Assembly election. Or will Fearghal McKinney step forward and challenge after May’s election results.

audience for Mark H DurkanIt’s important to realise that the SDLP conference – similarly to Sinn Féin’s ard fheis … and the Green Party – debates motions brought by branches and groups within the party at their conference. This is in total contrast with unionist conferences that policy debate out of sight and use their public event as a stage-managed rallying call for members and a media opportunity for representatives.

Given the emphasis on socialising at the SDLP conference, the smaller venue meant that many of the sessions attended by 50-100 people didn’t look quite so sparse. However, it must be a concern for the party that the delegates bothering to sit through the lengthy policy sessions as well as speaking for/against the motions tended to be older and male. SDLP Youth were present but my perception was in smaller numbers and with less energy.

Friday evening’s session included a motion from the Cavehill/Fortwilliam branch calling for the “establishment of an SDLP Think Tank to develop an in-depth analysis, proposals and a roadmap to progress the case for an Agreed Ireland that would command the necessary consent for constitutional change in the future”.

An amendment brought by the Lisburn branch failed which preferred “a New Ireland convention … with a majority of ordinary citizens from across the island, representation from civic society organisations and with minority representation from political parties on the island”. So we should expect to hear about the establishment of the SDLP’s Think Tank over coming months now that it is party policy.

In the meantime you can read and listen to Conall McDevitt’s thoughts back in February 2013 when I interviewed him about a new Ireland.

As well conducting some internal party business, Friday’s sessions included a speech by the deputy leader Dolores Kelly who once again used the platform to call for the party to leave the Executive and go into opposition.

She said that the SDLP supported “rapid growth” of the integrated education sector.

We cannot be serious about ending division if we perpetuate it by educating children apart … There is a huge opportunity to set integrated education on a new trajectory in the rationalisation of the schools estate. And ‘Shared Schools’ is a misleading concept. They are merely segregated schools who, sensibly, share resources. We must go beyond ‘shared’ to ‘integrated’.

Dolores added:

Division is the roadblock to all progress. Our opponents bossing the failed Executive have done nothing to foster reconciliation mainly because they actually benefit from division and deep down do not believe in a shared future. Sectarian headcounts are more their style.

That is why we have a First Minister who insults Muslims; a health minister who overrides scientific advice to insult gay people; another health minister who says that working class smokers with tattoos are serial law-breakers; and a double-jobbing former minster who gratuitously insults Irish speakers.

The other outfit is even worse. They have the brass necks to join public protests against health cuts waved through by their own party. And then we have the reprehensible, disgusting closing of the ranks against innocent victims of republican rape and child abuse; an ugly sight to behold in any democratic chamber.

The SDLP’s health spokesperson Fearghal McKinney called for the College of Emergency Medicine and the Health Minister “to ensure the recruitment of additional A&E Consultant Doctors for employment in Northern Ireland”.

The well-publicised stress on our A&E departments requires innovation in how we think about hospital admissions. Our move to introduce direct ward referral from GPs surgeries and longer GP opening hours would help to expedite and facilitate referral procedures.

On the topic of welfare reform, Alex Attwood:

We met the Secretary of State on Thursday, a meeting full of dogma and Treasury demands. Teresa Villiers gave us a paper.

It was silent on why one hundred in every 1000 are on disability benefits here compared with 50 in every 1000 in Britain. It was silent on the fact that child poverty here by 2020 will be over 30 per cent. It was silent on the welfare, physical and emotional needs of victims and survivors. It was silent on much else but it was full of sums. “We will not vote for a Welfare Bill with the financial top-up. This is very short of what is needed. We said this to the Secretary of State on Thursday. We repeat this again today.”

Saturday morning’s session began fifteen minutes late, looking at arts and culture, victims and survivors and north-south cooperation before the SDLP’s sole minister Mark H Durkan addressed conference.

Mark H Durkan

Voting against budget proposals that were rushed through to meet conditions attached to a Treasury loan, agreed with the DUP and followed lemming-like by Sinn Féin. Peter Robinson has tried to pass this off as something that any family would do in taking out a mortgage.

Some mortgage! With his financial planning and management I’m not sure I would trust Peter Robinson to go to the shop for me. [laughs and applause]

It was a laboured performance that later fluffed one of the carefully crafted jokes. The party only provided quotes from his speech and the sound quality is poor in the recording (some bits are missing as the sound feed at the back of the hall dropped out at various points).

Environment and Energy as well as Agriculture were squeezed in before a pause to allow delegates and exhibitors to stream into the hall to hear Alasdair McDonnell’s televised leader speech.

This year the leader was mercifully short, coming in at 26 and a half minutes, well under last year’s broadcast-slot-busting 39 minute oration. The lights had been carefully set the day before and the speech rehearsed. Yet Alasdair’s head was down, reading from his script and frequently stumbling over lines.

SDLP Alasdair McDonnellThe speech began with a list of topics Alasdair would cover:

I want to talk to you today about: better politics; a fairer Society; a more productive Economy; and a New SDLP poised for Government in the 21st century.

On the talks :

Let’s be frank here today friends, expectations for the current talks are very low. When I talk to people in their communities, in their homes, their sports halls and in their workplace. People want the Assembly to work, they want Stormont to work, they want Government Ministers to work together. People want the Assembly to deliver; they want change for the better; change that they can rely on. But it isn’t happening. As things stand Sinn Fein and the DUP do not, cannot and will not work constructively together. We don’t have partnership in Government – we have a self-serving partisan gridlock …

In the talks, we are putting peoples real needs first. We have listened to you and hundreds of others across the country. We know what you want us to do and where you want us to get to.

You have told us that:

  • You want a comprehensive settlement of all the outstanding issues;
  • You want to fix the broken Stormont system;
  • You want Northern Ireland to work and create prosperity;
  • You want us to make it work for all our people;
  • You want to make it work at maximum efficiency so that we deliver opportunities for all our people, particularly our young people …

We are putting forward credible solutions where other parties list their problems. When the DUP said No to having the Irish Government located in Parliament Buildings at Stormont, it was a farce because the Irish Government met with the SDLP and other parties in Parliament Buildings within a few hours – we made room for them. Minister Charlie Flanagan and his team are welcome in Stormont, and they are very welcome to stay there for as long as they need.

In the talks we are asking the other parties and the two governments to return to the principles of the Haass Talks on the past, on parades and on flags – where a reasonable compromise was reached last New Year’s eve …

Where do you see the leaders in Unionism who will attempt to see the parading problem in north Belfast through the eyes of beleaguered residents? When will everyone agree on a method to deal with the past that keeps the needs of victims and survivors at its heart?

I can reassure you that the SDLP will stay in the Talks as long as agreement is possible, exploring every opportunity for a positive outcome. We will reach out and cooperate with others on all the issues of genuine public concern and public need for change. If other parties share our aspiration then all the better, we will work with them to deliver a common agenda.

On opposition:

Conference, in the talks there is some focus on the structures of Government – and how it could be improved on. As things stand there is no official role for an opposition within the Stormont structures. We will argue for a properly structured opposition to be put in place in future years, resourced, allowed proper space and time on the floor of the Assembly, and allocated a share of staff support and places on committees.

In the meantime if other parties don’t get to grips with their responsibilities, and we can’t settle on an agreed way forward then we will reserve the right to operate from a position of constructive opposition. The present structures do not stop us from opposing bad legislation or from highlighting the flaws and the problems with the two bigger parties. Nor do they stop us from saying ‘No’.

We will not be part of a broken and politically bankrupt Executive if it doesn’t get its act together. But opposition cannot simply be a one day wonder, where we walk away, and adopt some sort of abstentionist role that would only result in even more Ministerial seats more authority and more power to do damage being handed to the problem parties.

Opposition has to have clearer definition and serve the public interest it is however an option we will reserve, we will review and we will evaluate on a month to month basis.

On the budget:

The talks agenda has been weighed down with the latest budgetary problems, which go way beyond the penalties imposed because of welfare reform. We have all known that the severe cuts we are now grappling with were heading our way since 2011. Why was there no long term planning by the two problem parties the DUP and Sinn Fein? Why in 2014 do we have a crisis around a growing budgetary problem that we have known about for the last four years?

So why have SDLP members of committees not been asking questions for the last four years?

The SDLP , in dealing with the budget will put people’s needs first. We will work for a fair budget that has maximum impact on job creation and growth and sets out to rebalance the economy. Our idea of a good budget is one that focuses on creating jobs, improving health care and provides better education opportunities for our children. We don’t accept anyone’s financial analysis or financial figures without question, whether it’s George Osborne or Simon Hamilton.

We will set up our own think tank of the best brains we can muster locally to dissect future budgets and produce creative alternatives. Where are the creative and progressive ideas going to come from if we in the SDLP don’t generate them?

On the North West economy:

There is a deep sense in the North West of a regional imbalance in inward investment projects. The SDLP will work with local business interests in the North West and take appropriate initiatives to tackle the particular economic difficulties faced in Derry and Strabane and Omagh. We will set up local working groups to tackle the significant those challenges. We find solutions to the problems and we will follow through and implement those solutions.

In his televised speech, Alasdair McDonnell did not mention Alex Atwood’s European election candidacy, and made no mention of the Euro poll. (Though I’m sure Alex was thanked at other points in the two day conference.)

On this year’s council elections:

In May this year we fielded a great slate of council candidates across the North standing alongside an experienced team of good SDLP Councillors were many new young candidates who caught the imagination of the public and were returned to help shape the new super councils.

Included among them we had more female candidates than ever before. [long applause] We set out to get the gender balance up to 33-35%. We reached 40%. I’m delighted and I want to congratulate those women who came forward and took those seats.

While we didn’t win as many seats as we had hoped, we can take great satisfaction from the regeneration and renewal of the party the people who stood for election this year are the future of this party, and the future of Ireland. I am confident that these new councillors at some stage in the future will proudly take over the mantle of John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Eddie McGrady … Austin Currie … Paddy Duffy and many others who risked everything forty years ago for civil rights; Peace, for social justice, for economic prosperity and the right to live in an Ireland free from prejudice, sectarianism and violence.

He said that SDLP representatives in council chambers “are applying a simple formula” of putting people first and putting people’s needs hopes and dreams for their children first.

Today I am asking a group of these new young leaders to step forward and help draw up a strategy for growing our vote right across all eighteen constituencies. They are the future and I want them to start scoping out that future …

We are all here because we share a common ambition for our country – built on reconciliation, social justice, a shared prosperity, and a united people on the island of Ireland which accommodates all cultures, traditions, religions and beliefs.

The SDLP continues as ever to have at its heart the vision of a New and United Ireland. And we have never changed that goal.

However, it felt strange that the Conservative Party speeches on European withdrawal and the potential detrimental impact on Northern Ireland wasn’t linked into this restatement of fundamental SDLP policy.

Neither have we changed our deeply held view that this goal can only be achieved by persuading the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland, from both communities, that this is the best way forward for them and their children. We are not in the business of sectarianism, petty nationalism or militarism.

Republicanism, which should have been a term of inclusion, where all the children of the nation are treated equally regardless of politics, religion, race or opinion, has been sullied by those who would force their will on others, making it the mirror image of that under which we suffered so long.

The SDLP are solely in the business of persuasion and common decency. There can be no other pathway to the way ahead for Northern Ireland.

The SDLP wants to build that New Ireland where understanding, equality, reconciliation and inclusion are principles we can pass on confidently to our children and where the tyrannies of sectarianism, hatred and conflict are repulsive memories of what we have irrevocably consigned to the past.

In pursuing this the SDLP wants to create a vibrant forward-looking and outward-looking society, which would devote all its energies to introducing progressive policies and programmes that would lead to sustainable economic prosperity and solid social security.

I am very proud of our Country and I am very ambitious for her.

The SDLP leader spoke about the May 2015 Westminster election and pacts, but made no commitment to the possibility of him withdrawing from the Assembly if he retains his South Belfast seat.

Next year we will face into the Westminster elections, defending the three Parliamentary seats we hold and looking to continue growing our vote in other constituencies. We will not get distracted by the advances of either Martin McGuinness or Mike Nesbitt, seeking pacts. [long applause]

The SDLP will be standing candidates for election in every single constituency across the North – all eighteen of them – and we’ll be armed only with the quality of our candidates and our progressive policies.

They won’t be based on sectarian selfish interests. I’m already fighting South Belfast with all of my energy and Mark Durkan has been doing the same in Derry and Margaret Ritchie in South Down. [applause] I don’t mind telling you that if we weren’t here for today’s conference we would be out knocking doors, as we have been for the past few months in South Down, in Foyle, and in South Belfast.

In the Westminster election campaign right across the North, we will reach out to the voters and say quite simply:”‘Send us back to Westminster so that we can continue to do a good job there for you”.

Working with my MP colleagues Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie we voted against the ravages of the Tory Cuts dressed up as welfare reform, while Sinn Fein were launching some pathetic online petitions. We stood up for the people of Palestine last month in supporting their campaign to recognise their statehood. We used the committee structures of the House of Commons to expose the hypocrisy of the On The Run letters …

So don’t think that the SDLP will dilute our values or our policies in favour of a pact. The SDLP policies and principles and values are not for sale.

And on future Assembly elections:

Although most of the focus is on next year’s Westminster poll, we are also keeping an eye on the next Assembly election.

We may not have to wait to 2016 because if there is a successful outcome in the talks they might need an early Assembly election to validate it. But we need to examine why we are having these talks in the first place.

Seven years after the restoration of devolution, we still don’t have a credible stable functional Government in Stormont. We still have petty obstruction; argument; needling and dysfunction, instead of honest compromise and reasoned progress.

In what other coalition Government would one Minister resort to the courts to stop another Minister carrying out his job? And we congratulate Mark H Durkan for the job he’s doing there. For in what other situation would a petition of concern mechanism, designed to protect minority interests, becomes effectively a veto. I don’t need to list the examples of how Stormont is failing people. You all see it every day. Stormont is now a byword for blockage and failure. Is it any wonder that the majority of people are switched off by politics because of that?

Our job is to persuade people to vote for real change, to vote for something different, for something better, and for something that will work for them. Something that will put the real needs of all of our people first.

So in a 2016 Assembly election or 2015 if it comes a but sooner, we will say to the public – these are our priorities, in healthcare, in education and across all policy areas. We will cost our proposals and show how they can be paid for, and we will ask for support; and we will ask people for votes to deliver a new and better agenda for Government.

We will develop a suite of proposals for Government that are well grounded in common sense politics that cannot be ground to a halt by the default “for and against” zero sum politics of Sinn Fein and the DUP.

He posed some questions:

Why can’t we pledge that we will freeze third level tuition fees for the lifetime of the next Assembly?

Perhaps because NI can’t afford another binding tax generation cap in light of austerity and shrinking educational budgets?

Why can’t we pledge that all cancer patients get fair and reasonable access to the full range of life saving medicines that are available to patients over in Britain?

Why can’t we make a commitment that hard working families will get proper access to the pre-school places for their children on a fair and equal basis?

Why can’t we insure that development and investment is regionally balanced?

Why can’t we say that families will no longer have to pay for residential care for Granny or Granda?

Because there isn’t infinite budget? And because these questions don’t include: Why don’t we introduce water charges? Why don’t we increase rates? Why don’t we raise more tax? Why don’t we stop shying away from difficult decisions? Maybe Mark Durkan MP needs to remind colleagues what he learnt as Minister of Finance & Personnel.

Why can’t we give hope to young unemployed teachers by committing to reducing class sizes and opening new job opportunities for them?

There are parties and commentators who will say these objectives are undeliverable – why?

[Ed – Oops]

Successive Devolved Governments in Scotland are able to deliver a similar legislative programme which is socially just, targets social need, facilities economic growth and protects the vulnerable. Colleagues, it is not beyond our ability to look after the needs of our people in the same way. All we need is the Imagination and the commitment to make it happen.

[Ed – And we need a balanced budget …]

We can do a much better job in Stormont than the DUP and Sinn Fein who have failed the public repeatedly through indecision and invective.

We have shown that through the actions and decisiveness of our Minister Mark H Durkan and before him Alex and before him Margaret. As the party with responsibility for the Environment we have made that work for the economy. We made bold decisions on planning for major projects. We protected the natural habitat in Fermanagh and elsewhere. We used our position within the Executive to promote better policies and quicker decisions.

We can deliver. In a much better way for the benefit of all who live here. That is our track record and that is our future promise.

The speech concluded:

The SDLP has always and will always stand with the people for stability, peace, social and economic justice and the common good. It should be remembered that the overwhelming majority of people from both communities in Northern Ireland held and continue to hold these ideals and refused to be part of the lunacy that threatened to drive us all into civil war.

When will politicians stop talking about “both communities” and say “all communities”?

These people are still out there and will still give their vote to achieve our objectives if we can show them we are capable of implementing these policies on their behalf. However, we must ask them for that vote.

Conference, today I have set out a new vision for our party. A new vision on how we can create better politics. How we can build a fairer economy built on the peoples principles of no one being left behind. And how we can create a New SDLP built on our proud legacy but looking to a new generation who can – and will – make NI a better place

Together if we do all this we can restore people’s faith in politics and get Government working again.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh

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.