As things wrapped up on Saturday and the exhibitors were packing up I caught up with the SDLP Leader, Alasdair McDonnell MP. Throughout the day I had heard criticism that the conference was a little flat, so I began by asking about how he felt the mood of the conference was?
McDonnell detected a sense of hope and energy in the Ramada as around a third of the delegates were attending the conference for the first time. For him, this was another step on the path to renewal as he told me that younger faces were beginning to stand up and make a mark at this conference.
However, I wondered are these words of renewal not a little bit contradictory after his party lost ground in the May elections?
The DUP lost 4% and nobody got excited, Sinn Fein lost a few percentage points and nobody got excited, Ulster Unionist was level….The point is this I am not disappointed at the 1.4% drop because the amount of renewal, the amount of new faces, 26 of our councillors are new…and we have done a big job in shifting gender balance and that will continue.
Despite the gains that McDonnell says the party is making, I reminded him of recent comments by pundits and back in May from Gerry Adams that essentially the SDLP are irrelevant.
McDonnell was quick to respond that he didn’t believe anything from Gerry Adams arguing that his comments during the last election were just “bluff and bluster”.
I was keen to move onto what I regarded where some mis-steps that has happened under his leadership, most famously the party’s handling of the SPAD bill. I put it to Alasdair that he dithered over the bill and actually came out politically weakened for it?
Not surprisingly McDonnell did not see it like that. He argued that the party’s main problem with idea was that it was a “Jim Allister driven bill” and that they had some concerns, but for him the SDLP always sides with victims and that the party always has to be about honest and pragmatic politics. There was no question for McDonnell that the SDLP would ever do anything that did not come down on the side of victims of the Troubles.
Moving away from the SPAD Bill, I wanted to chat about his main rivals, Sinn Fein. I put it to him that with Sinn Fein rising across the island that the momentum behind them, made it incredibly unlikely that the SDLP will ever rise up again to take their place as the dominant party of nationalism.
McDonnell pointed out that over the last few years, the Sinn Fein vote was relatively stable around the mid-twenties, but he was confident that the SDLP can will and will recover.
As he spoke, I couldn’t get this notion of our my head that in reality the problem for Alasdair was that he was being more of a general secretary, rather than a party leader. I wanted to know did he feel he was focusing too much on the organisational aspects of the party, neglecting the big picture.
On this issue, he was quite forthright arguing that essentially the “buck stops with him” on all the issues of fundraising, policy and party performance. He reminded me of his comments when he became that leader that he was in this for the long haul and to deal with the organisational difficulties that have plagued the party for the past number of years.
As we were on the topic of organisation, I asked him about the recent proposal from Sinn Fein for a “pro-agreement” pact the next Westminster election. On this issue, McDonnell told that the position is “black and white” and that his party will stand in every single seat.
Evoking my inner nationalist, I put it to him that surely there is a strong case for a pan-nationalist front at the next election, how could Michelle Gildernew or himself losing seats help nationalism?
McDonnell said that there might be a case for a “pan-Irish” front but that Sinn Fein and the SDLP have two fundamentally different approaches towards politics. For him, the SDLP is about persuasion and discussion in bringing Irish unity about through consent, whereas, Sinn Fein is about coercion and force which simply sets nationalism back. He also pointed out that Sinn Fein do no take their seats at Westminster, while he believes that it is important for the SDLP to be in the House of Commons to vote on key issues and make the case for his constituents.
I concluded by asking him what he wanted his legacy to be, when he steps down as leader of the SDLP sometime in the future.
I am not John Hume, I am not Seamus Mallon and I inherited very different times and a different environment than either of them and I do what I feel is best for the party and I will continue to do it and that is rebuilding the party and renewing the party and I will when I leave, leave a party that’s on recovery, on the upbeat, on the upward bound and basically will have a whole new generation.
McDonnell candidly told me that the big problem with the SDLP in the past was the lack of succession planning. He thinks that the party always believed that John Hume and Seamus Mallon could go on forever and he will ensure that under him a proper succession plan will be in place.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs