Perhaps the SDLP should try letting Alasdair be Alasdair for a while, and stop apologising…

Really crap morning for periscope this morning, so I had to do it in three bites, all of which break off abruptly before the end… Premise is that whether Big Al attack on SF and the SDLP was a gaffe or not, but that the North Belfast News scoop captured the real Alasdair McDonnell, blunt, forthright and intentionally revealing.

As one senior nationalist strategist put it to me, “this is what I recommended to the party a few years ago (when McDonnell first became leader), that they should just let Alasdair be Alasdair. Even if it goes hideously wrong for them, they have nothing else going for them.”

So, here’s the three segments

Breaking out of the reservation…

Breaking out of politics by committee mode?

Why democracy thrives on political conflict…

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  • Niall Chapman

    Hearing his honesty in the recording is the first time I have ever considered voting SDLP, I also think they should bring back Connall McDevitt (if he hasnt figured out what a waste of time politics in North(of/ern) Ireland is)

  • Acrobat_747

    Alasdair was telling the truth. That’s exactly how it is.

    And you’re totally correct Mick. Let Alasdair be himself. I’ve always thought he should be let loose fully uncut and uncensored.

    He’s an extremely honest politician. We already know he’s blunt, frank and a touch grumpy but that’s Alasdair.

    He’s a breath of fresh air compared to the polished and dull politicians in the other parties. SDLP should just let him rip.

  • Redstar

    Would never vote for him but fair play to him, he calls it as it is .

    I really have to laugh at Dup anger over this- Sammy Wilsons infamous quote ” taigs don’t pay rates”- tells us all we need to know about how that party really think

  • Newt

    Well done Alasdair. Finally discovered an empirical truth that most people have known for the longest time. Will be a shock to Sinn Fein supporters (NOT).

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Needs to now take the next and honest step and take his party into opposition ! Then I will say he has a pair off balls !

  • Kevin Breslin

    Now do these comments constitute him being a rogue or being a renegade?

  • Darren Litter

    Why are we pretending that there’s ever been any kind of rigid filter put on Alasdair – or at the very least, one he’s diligently observed? Alasdair has never been anything other than Alasdair, and it’s yielded:

    – A viral party conference for all the wrong reasons.
    – Disastrous (added emphasis) remarks about foetal abnormality.
    – Little to no leader participation in the last Westminster election.
    – The lowest MP victory in electoral history.
    – Countless damaging interviews marked by needless hostility.
    – A holding down of one of the party’s most gifted emerging talents, Claire Hanna.

    Let Alasdair be Alasdair and you get one semi-pertinent remark in a 100. It’s nice to see a DUP/SF and UUP/SDLP dynamic emerging – which SF are clearly panicking about – but let’s not get carried away.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I think people do respond generally quite well to a politician who is willing to “get angry” and call it as he sees it, especially when he is confronting what may be seen as uncomfortable truths.

    There have been a few signs of this – the decision to block the DUP plans for an adjournment of the Assembly is another example I can think of, as is McDonnell’s robust calling-out of republicans over the McGuigan murder.

    The attack on Sinn Féin is also significant in that it’s an ongoing move to distance the party from SF. Where in the recent past the SDLP might have been seen as guarantors of SF’s mandate – ie they would have resisted attempts by the unionists to exclude SF or otherwise try to marginalise them – McDonnell seems to be setting down a marker that those days are past.

  • Ernekid

    It seems like McDonnell is going to face a challenge from Colum Eastwood. I think the Stoops need to drop McDonnell like a hot stone. He got reelected by the skin of his teeth thanks to a crowded ticket. His leadership has been pretty mediocre as the SDLP have struggled to prove any sort of relevance. In Scotland the SNP have revitalised Nationalism, in England Corbyn is trying to revitalise Social Democracy. What are the SDLP doing here?

  • mickfealty


    – Yes, though I do recall that Alex Kane was a lot more sympathetic to him.
    – Yes.
    – Yes, but he did have the dirtiest of dirty campaigns I’ve ever seen put in the field.
    – Ditto.
    -Yes. Though he did look okay on UTV tonight…
    – Erm, who is an MLA for South Belfast?

    I agree, and you’ll find my quote does admit it could be (almost certain to be) a disaster.

    But be fair, this is the first little bit of weather the party’s had since the GFA. And for once he’s forcing SF and the DUP both to respond in the media whilst he is the one getting talked about.

  • Darren Litter

    Kane may have given him a bye-ball on that one, but his forecasts regarding the SDLP since have been very damning.

    The fact remains; you can’t have a party leader – especially one competing for a seat – go completely AWOL during an election. It put the party in a very difficult position.

    Somebody is obviously advising him to tone down the boisterousness. But unfortunately for Alasdair, the public perception has long been set.

    Yes, Claire Hanna recently became the MLA for South Belfast. But that doesn’t negate my point. As somebody demonstrating the type of ability that the party are in need of, Hanna should never have been made to wait so long for that position. She had to push hard for an MLA slot. Any leader acting in the best interests of the party would have elevated her at the first opportunity.

    I like the new dynamics opening up, but if the SDLP are to enjoy any weather beyond this well set-up remark; they need to put somebody in charge that inspires. Alasdair is not that person.

    The big difference between SF and the SDLP at a senior level is that SF realize the need to inject vibrant, new talent. The SF old guard – beyond the figures that continue to appeal – is constantly making way for new blood, whereas the SDLP’s cling on to the 11th hour.

  • mickfealty

    Interesting. Mark Durkan was a brilliant quipster, fantastically funny, but they rarely brought the party any real political advantage. This was no quip.

    I’ve seen Alasdair when he’s done things accidentally, that opening speech was a classic example of it. It’s generally a car crash. And, and judging by the reactions it brought from both the DUP and SF reps, this was no car crash.

    The rap against the knuckles of the DUP (which I personally don’t agree quite with) was a well aimed dig in the DUP’s already heavily bruised ribs, and was the reason he was able to pull in a nicely kneejerk reaction from the Media.

    The dig at SF though was far more thought through. If he has any sense he will continue to mine it ruthlessly and endlessly. Think about it. He’s hit upon their long term weakness, which they have been brilliant at playing up as a strength.

    We all know why GA cannot tell the truth about his past. One, it would raise some very ugly questions, and two he might be subject to arrest. In other words, telling the truth would be bad for SF’s political fortunes.

    But it’s become far more ubiquitous than that. Just look at that exchange between Wells and McGuinness? Accusing someone of lying puts the burden of proof on the accuser. But accusing someone of being incapable of honesty throws the light back on the subject of the accusation.

    That’s the nearest thing to actual politics I’ve heard from the SDLP since the GFA and probably a lot longer ago than that.

    As for Claire Hannah, if her appointment doesn’t invalidate your argument there, it weakens it considerably. It’s weaker still when you compare Al’s record with his predecessor.

    Your point about his absence is well made. But the closeness of the SB result (and the filthiest dirty tricks campaign I have ever seen from any party anywhere from SF) would seem to retrospectively justify that decision.

    He may not have the warmest persona, but he has the balls of that same proverbial bull. He’s also no spring chicken, so he won’t be around for too long. Personally, I don’t see anyone ready to take over from him. And changing leaders this close to an Assembly is, frankly, nuts.

    He’s got the ear of the voters right now, and he’s put down two public markers. With Nesbitt promising to take a bit out of the back end of the DUP, it would be remiss of the SDLP not to try to reciprocate.

  • Darren Litter

    Look, I do think that McDonnell’s curveball is getting a different reaction with the public than it is within commentary. From the nationalists I have spoken to there is very much a sense that McDonnell should be commended for reflecting what nationalists really feel about the DUP. If he continues in this vein effectively perhaps McDonnell could attract those “green” voters that feel SF have gone soft on the DUP. But I personally think this pat on the back that he is currently enjoying will not translate into actual support when it counts. It’s inevitable that in trying to up the ante on this McDonnell will say something dubious that makes people switch off again.

    I don’t agree with you that it should be the SF element to his comments that McDonnell should focus on. In my view nationalists do not like it when the SDLP go gung-ho on SF. It would be on a legitimate basis if they were to do so, of course – and it would likely go down a treat in the Republic – but here nationalists generally perceive it as sour grapes (at least, because SF have spun a successful narrative to that effect). The SDLP would be better leaving SF scrutiny to UUP while they go after the DUP. It was the DUP element to McDonnell’s remarks that got a few nationalists nodding their heads. This approach would be particularly effective given how (to date) the DUP and SF and have been rather liberal on one and other as regards the PIRA and NAMA.

    Claire Hanna being eventually appointed does not negate that McDonnell’s leadership has been perceived to hold down bright SDLP talent when the party was most in need of it.

    Again, a party leader inexplicably disappearing during a Westminster election is disastrous – especially when it was so extensively reported on. Maybe it was the best decision for McDonnell personally, but the party he leads suffered greatly for it. If the other high profile parties experienced something similar, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a swift boot being offered.

    “Ready” suggests that McDonnell has set some sort of
    marker. He hasn’t. There hasn’t been anything noteworthy about his leadership. If Eastwood goes ahead with his bid and is successful, he will already be making progress on his predecessor by giving a decent acceptance address.

  • mickfealty


    “…while they go after the DUP.”

    This has been the official SDLP strategy since 2003, and it has come with very little return. It is true up to a point, but it is the quality of the challenge to the DUP that’s critical to any revival of the SDLP. And of course it is in the nature of politics that you want to see your uber opponent slapped.

    But here, I also think, McDonnell got the weighting right at least in the UTV interview linked above. After the Taig slap, he points out that there needs to be partnership. That’s clear messaging that the simple zero sum tit for tat the DUP and SF have plainly been playing is insufficient unto the day. Plus sum is required.

    This is an important change in framing matters, because it comprises a re-ordering of the qualities required to make government (as opposed to simple peace) work. The SDLP cannot directly outbid SF on peace maintenance, whilst the only thing that matters is maintaining the peace.

    Up to now peace has come at a much higher dollar value than anything else. It is seen as underwritten by the tough guys of SF. Only when you can re-jig the narrative to include other less binary subjects than “PEACE” can the SDLP (or the UUP for that matter) hope to turn its fortunes around.

    The ‘cannot tell the truth’ line may be deceptively simple on first sight. But that simplicity is it’s actual strength. It allows for a pivot between talking up the party’s flawed position on the past to a more a generic political weakness across the brand and the wider policy piste.

    Contrary to what you argue, the SDLP are in competition with only two parties for votes: Alliance, and SF. That requires, not the tactical, reactive and defensive moves we’ve seen over the last fifteen years or so (“you are bad whilst we are decent”), but a steady and consistent exploitation of your opponent’s weaknesses. No one is going switch from DUP to SDLP so over servicing that line of attack is a waste of scarce resources.

    On Claire and the younger talent problem, you’ve avoided my question. Outside Derry and Foyle there’s been no renewal under previous leaders. Your criticism is valid enough in itself, but it fails badly in examination of the longer term trend under previous leaders. Big Al at least has Claire now to his credit (and there are others now at council level who I suspect will give a decent account of themselves when the time comes).

    Perhaps you didn’t see the SF dirty tricks campaign in South Belfast, which started day one of the election campaign, and mysteriously disappeared when Big Al won the seat? I did, and quickly checked it out and decided it was a carefully manufactured political crap storm. You have a choice of just two actions then. Ignore it, put your head down and get out on the doorsteps and avoid any possibility of forcing it to enter the public bloodstream.

    Or you get asked the famous “are you a pig f*cker” question (

    Big Al chose the former. And, importantly, he came back with his seat. I don’t buy the lowest vote figure ever line. It was the broadest field in the most heterogeneous electorate in NI. SF on the other hand blew their whole political wad on a sick campaign that failed, and leave behind them a distinct whiff of political desperation.

    Al keeps his seat, went to Westminster, lets Claire in and the party survives a potentially fatal blow and gets to fight another day. That engagement alone should disabuse any SDLP supporter of the juvenile idea that you can never benefit from attacking your direct rivals to power. SF were and remain utterly ruthless in their task of consigning the SDLP to the dustbin of history. And the SB campaign shows just how low (“Zyklon B”) they are prepared to go to kill them off.

    My guess is that Big Al smelt, in no uncertain terms, the proverbial coffee and is now utterly awake. The same, I think, cannot be said of some of the rest of his political party.

  • Darren Litter

    The SDLP has taken many official stances that have not really materialized in its actual conduct. Over the course of the last two or three years the SDLP’s representation on programmes like The View or Spotlight has largely been about asserting themselves as having greater moral integrity than SF because they did not advocate violence. People like Dolores Kelly have a definite point when they argue that, but the fact is nationalist voters (who SF unquestionably command the majority of) roll their eyes at this line of attack.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you are suggesting that the SDLP should go after the DUP and SF, but primarily SF. I agree with you that they should point out the flaws in both. My point is simply that in this particular instance, it was the DUP line from McDonnell that really caused nationalists to pause and say, ”wait a minute, did he just?”

    When the SDLP focuses on SF, SF voters tend to shut off out of suspicion about possible sour grapes. Look at social media any time an SDLP panel member goes off on his/her SF counterpart. It’s counterproductive. Right now – not 2003, 2004 or any year other than the present moment – the UUP and SDLP need to take the mantle on PIRA/NAMA and bounce off one and other. The route to a change in the dynamics is both parties challenging their opposites on the “other side of the fence” in a way that is more impressive than their opposites closer to home; while also, as you put it, not letting off on their own direct challengers to power. I would also add that you make this crucial point: the SDLP have tended not return the very vitriolic fire that it is often subjected to by SF.

    What good did just directly attacking the DUP do for the UUP? It was only through acting against SF to get to the DUP that a slight ripple has been caused. Something of a shift is occurring within unionism because the UUP impressed with their stance on SF. The SDLP can do the same by acting on how cushy the DUP/SF tandem has become. The two have been noticeably soft on one and other RE: PIRA/NAMA. The SDLP can make the case that it’s the nationalist party that will pull no punches with the DUP.

    You’re misrepresenting my argument entirely. What I am saying is that attacking SF isn’t the only (or indeed best) way for the SDLP to potentially make gains on SF.

    But something also needs to be said here about nearly half the population that don’t vote. McDonnell employing terms like “taig” serves to alienate non-voters that could possibly be drawn into support for the party if it placed more emphasis on its social democracy values; expanding beyond green/orange chatter when that’s all on offer. Somebody like Eastwood could retain the SDLP’s nationalism while breathing new life into its social democracy (which is as good a platform as any to come at the DUP and SF). As somebody that has voted for the party that is what I would like to see; and it’s the lack of which that has really stopped me from getting involved with the SDLP when I would like to.

    McDevitt and Hanna were the first two talents to really spark the public’s interest and it was specifically under Alasdair that they appeared not to be utilized as they should have been. I think McDevitt possibly was there under Ritchie and to her credit he quickly became the SDLP’s go-to person for interviews.

    Are you saying that disappearing from a Westminster election stops something from entering the public bloodstream? Don’t you think it was precisely McDonnell’s decision to avoid all media appearances that gave traction to what you refer to? It was the journalists asking where he was that got people trying to find an answer.

    Just to be clear: are you saying that it was SF that manufactured all of that? It was put out there by an internet vigilante-style group in February was it not? Obviously SF supporters magnified it, but given the nature of what was being reported, is that really surprising?

    Anyway, great chat, Mick. I think we’re both getting at the fact that the SDLP should keep the gloves off – and that’s the most important point. Now, back to my late night work!

  • mickfealty

    Cheers. Don’t disagree with much of how you’re developing your argument there Darren. On the poisonous SB campaign against him, as I say he had two options.

    Outing it might have worked, but you can’t just criticise him for disappearing without factoring in what he was up against.

    I know he’s made lots of internal enemies inside the party. But he’s not quite the failure his internal critics like to paint him as.

    He’s given them no air cover up to now, but that’s partly because so long as SF and the DUP kept it all tight and professional there was not much to play with.

    I suspect he’s luckier in that regard than his predecessors with the undignified unravelling of OFMdFM happening on his watch rather than theirs.

  • Nevin

    “We’re just not used to nice middle-class SDLP coming out with blunt things .. it’s not really the public voice of the SDLP as we have heard in the past ..”

    No, really? The much more articulate John Hume had this to say in his book Personal Views:

    p27 … they hark back to the past and speak of the future only with fear and foreboding, a paranoia … a siege mentality, rooted in insecurity, in prejudice, in fear of domination

    p37 … [the border] has reinforced the laager mentality of the Unionist people

    p59 … the Unionist mind-set, which is “we are a minority in Ireland, so to protect ourselves we must hold all power in our hands and exclude everyone else”

    p65 … Dublin and Irish opinion generally clearly intend no threat to Unionists

    p85 … the Unionists had become a petty people. They represented themselves as the defenders and protectors of the Protestant heritage in Ireland…. no one had done more to destroy it … a pathetic and leaderless bunch of politicians who did not even accept the legitimacy of the Northern Ireland state created for them

    Such ‘complements’/ jaundiced views tell us rather more about the speaker than about those who are spoken about. Unionists and nationalists generally show a lack of respect for the ‘other’ preference, whether it be membership of the United Kingdom or of a United Ireland.

    Dublin’s intervention in relation to the Athboy conspiracy negates the p65 quote.

    ‘p24 … this proposal took public housing allocation out of the hands of local Unionist politicians’ is selective truth-telling as such patronage was removed from all local politicians, irrespective of party.