Why the battle over the SDLP’s leadership is worth paying attention to…

So Seamus Mallon backs Colum Eastwood to be the next leader of the SDLP. That should throw a predatory cat or two amongst the political pigeons (although in fact it can’t have been that unexpected).

The SDLP leadership race has been quiet this time round. Of course that was also true at the beginning of the summer long contest for the leadership of the UK Labour party, and look how that hotted up towards the end.

Keeping things tamped down suits the incumbent Alasdair McDonnell. He’s made every effort to avoid a direct and open confrontation with the 32 year old from Derry. The first hustings only takes place this Thursday.

So far the only memorable line to emerge in this contest has come from Colum Eastwood’s cry to the heavens that he was “fed up with losing…”

Laudable (and understandable) sentiments for a party whose own private research tells it that it is viewed by potential new voters as being both out of touch and having a policy platform that differs little from Sinn Fein’s.

It begs a couple of questions:

  • Is Colum’s a sentiment that is shared broadly within the party?
  • And what exactly is the party prepared to do to change matters?

Many mainstream opinion formers have long since given up on the two former establishment parties believing their defenestration in the early naughties was both definitive and irreversible.

And yet Mike Nesbitt’s albeit modest revival of the UUP continues. He’s now using credible position (as opposed to traditional sound and fury) to build strength and add pressure on the current DUP leadership.

Nationalist politics too may be shifting. In the south (where they have deployed most of their talent) Sinn Fein faces significant reversals in sentiment particularly amongst younger people.

The inevitability myth which has sustained its growth for so long will be severely tested in the upcoming election as a plethora of parties and independents on a fragmenting Irish left battle it out for a finite number of voters.

As Derek Mooney notes “politics today is much more questioning and technicoloured now than it was in the days of the black and white western“. Less true of Northern Ireland than many other places, but it still holds.

Some damage has been self inflicted, but real political competition is a far larger factor. The political attacks by Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin undermine the odd idea that attacking Sinn Fein only increases its electoral appeal.

That stultifying orthodoxy still predominates both within and outwith the SDLP in Northern Ireland. As a result, northern nationalism has fallen into a deep and complacent slumber.

One of the few breakout moments in Alasdair McDonnell’s leadership was when he delivered a few harsh truths to his rivals to power. But they have remained outbreaks rather than part of a sustained campaign.

There is a case to be made for the modest progress that Big Al has made in parts. It is also true that many of those pushing for change in the party are just keen to get rid of Alasdair rather than grasp the chance.

McDonnell’s plodding style has not done the party anything like the sort of damage for which his many of his own internal critics have been guilty. But nor has he affected the measureable turnarounds he once promised.

Things are changing despite the restricting reflexes of the established media. This year at Freshers Week in Queens University Belfast – not for the first time – Fianna Fail out recruited all other nationalist parties.

That’s indicative, I suspect, of an impatience with the politics of buggeration which has jammed delivery at Stormont. Perhaps the younger generation is ready to move on to other ‘greener’ post conflict pastures?

The SDLP must ask itself if it is willing to do what’s needed to represent a new wave of young nationalists who see the Belfast Agreement – embedded in the Irish Constitution – as the bedrock of their all island aspirations?

In this context, ‘give me just a little more time’, or ‘move over, it’s Derry’s turn’ may not be enough. Or as Tom Kelly once memorably put it, “fortune favours the brave rather than the bewildered”.

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