Soapbox: Will the SDLP’s Achilles heel be the City that was once its bastion?

Hugh Brown is a Derry based reader, who occasionally writes Soapbox pieces for Slugger. He argues that the Achilles heel of Colum Eastwood speech was that it lacked policy detail and any explanation of where investment money will come from.

Following the SDLP AGM in Derry, we are no further forward in what the SDLP tend to do in the run-up to the May election.

Colum Eastwood’s demeanour reminded me of the Irish Labour Party before its decimation. His speech was filled with tepid brimstone and aimed at the gallery.

But are these the people he should be playing to?

The conference itself was small but lively. I attended to hear Paul Gosling speak, but his talk was to an empty room, poorly advertised by the SDLP. An interesting and valuable piece of work that went unheeded; a precedent perhaps?

As I sat in St Columb’s Hall, I was reminded of the old SDLP. This is a venue that they would have filled and garnered international attention, but, no. This new SDLP is a mixture of old and the not so old with very few fresh faces.

The fresh faces on stage have yet to prove themselves beyond the security blanket of their constituencies. Mark Durkan for example, has been voted the funniest MLA, an accolade many old guard don’t find so funny after his recent quip on abortion.

The SDLP AGM was arguably the smallest televised party conference the North has ever seen.

That Eastwood didn’t take any chances in drawing a red line in his speech was a weak move. It’s always important for a leader to use a platform to allow others outside of his comfort zone see where he intends to take the party.

The fact that the SDLP are now a Republican party in 2016 somewhat proves where the SDLP are at. A Republican Party willing to sit in Westminster and pledge allegiance to a Queen and go into opposition with the Ulster Unionists leading the way.

In other words, everything is disjointed.

Colum also stated that Sinn Fein has been in power for over 9 years and have delivered nothing for Derry.

This was met online by a Derry Twitter user (@Chris_Derry) stating that the SDLP have held a seat in Westminster for over 40 years and have delivered nothing for Derry. A valid point?

The SDLP are mired in the past and use the GFA as a battering ram for soundbites. Get over it.

The SDLP are running in treacle if they believe they can use this to build a future. It’s time they set out their stall instead of basing their arguments on negativity and Sinn Fein bashing; frankly, it makes them look weak.

Column Eastwood has said he intends to build an A5 and A6 with a costed alternative to the Fresh Start Agreement but hasn’t said how? The SDLP has also dropped any mention of the City Deal that they championed in Derry in 2015, probably because it was pie in the sky.

It looked good on paper, but again, with no actual substance; another precedent?

The core local argument of 12 March 2016 SDLP Conference was that “three into two” won’t go. Too true, but what are the SDLP doing to ensure this?

Actions speak louder than words, and all the SDLP have done is told their supporters they are in a good place. This is thin ice leadership; a risky strategy. The pictures with an aging John Hume won’t add to Colum’s advances.

If “three into two” does go in Foyle, will Mr Eastwood resign? Foyle is the SDLP’s war room, and if this battle is lost, is all lost?

When the leader’s debates are confirmed for mid-Aril, we will see a different SDLP: one with a manifesto, and going by this posturing, it will have an infinite amount of funding and one that will appeal to the republican unionists out there.

I mentioned on Twitter that Colum Eastwood’s task is one of Sisyphean proportions. The party is vulnerable and all the grandstanding and bluster from a Derry pulpit will be forgotten by the wider electorate.

It’s time for the SDLP to put up or shut up. Will the SDLP’s Achilles heel be the City that was once its bastion?
May 5th will answer that.

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  • I have ask, this man complains about costings, can you point me to any leaders speech where a leader sits and gives the costings of their manifesto?…..before its published?? None? For any leader to go through a speech listing costing would be suicide and efeat the full purpose of it. Sure the manifesto is the place for that? Sounds to me like tired Sinn Fein retortic.

    Lack of fresh faces? Quite a bold statement to make for someone clearly hasnt been to many SDLP events. There were more new members there than ever before and the amount of young people there has been remarked by all political commentators whp attended (including the slugger ones). As for fresh faces on stage? Daniel McCrossan, Nicola Mallon, Justin McNulty, Conal Brown, Sinead Bradly, Claire Hanna, Conor Duncan, all fresh faces, all under the age of 40…the leader is 32…. how can you suggest that it was tired looking with the same old faces?? Complete joke.

    If Martin doesnt get 3 SF elected in Foyle will he resign? Why then would Colum?? Did GA resign in 94? It may be silly to use the Donegal argument but why wouldn’t they?? If SF had got 3 elected in Donegal wouldn’t they have went on about how they will get 3 in Foyle??

    Come the leaders debates? Will you be sitting down with a pen and paper ready to calculate allt he numbers said by all leaders? Ill be expecting your next soapbox to be about the sound costings of ALL political parties running in the north…funny though I missed it for those in the south.

    I wonder would slugger allow an SDLPer to review marty or gerrys speech later this month?

  • Barneyt

    I think yes. We have a derry man contesting a derry seat. Hes deputy leader and combined with SF and their marriage to solely political means…he has ample respectability and no longer gives the more placid nationalists the heebee jeebees. SF no doubt have chosen their time well…they have the knack. It maybe won’t be nailed on…but the SDLP will i feel take a big hit in their own back yard…which is also Martins.

  • Robin Keogh

    I will probably be laughed off the page for this but with curry my yogurt opting out and in the context of a continuing Unionist decline in the city, plus a very public brawl within nationalism, is it not possible SF and SDLP could take three seats each?

  • Gaygael


  • mjh

    The DUP have had internal problems in Foyle (although Gregory is next door in East Londonderry). Nevertheless they secured 1.3 quotas in 2011 so have plenty to spare. On that occasion the UUP did not even manage to get a candidate nominated – but they will be on the ballot this time so, if anything, there could be a few more unionist voters turning out.

    That leaves 5 seats. And its not impossible that Eamon McCann will finally take one of them.

  • Kevin Breslin

    It is possible, on the basis that it is not entirely impossible. Ever hear of the ironically named Cromwell’s Rule?

    I think to be honest Sinn Féin not getting 2 seats won’t be a disaster for them, getting 1 like in Donegal would be an embarrassment but not a crisis. Getting 3 seats requires strong transfers from independents and some unionists.

    If the SDLP get two and the seat reduction kicks in they would probably still probably hold those two. You do have a point though in that the DUP may lose their seat in this case just as was the case when there were five seats for the forum election.

    As it stands I would say the DUP seat is safe even with the DUP problems in Foyle, but the UUP are able to put up their biggest fight against it in decades from their nadir here of having to pull out their candidate in one year.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I would say you are probably right after the DUP take a seat, the rest of the field (Independents, greens, alliance and a few minor unionist parties) combined are probably closer to a quota than either the SDLP or Sinn Féin are to three. Would be interesting to see if the possibility of transfers across those parties support get into the psyche of the respective parties.

    Another possibility is that Eammon McCann may himself be under competition from Dr. Ann McCloskey.

  • Kevin Breslin

    It would be interesting to compare with previous policy papers.

  • mickfealty

    Yes. Of course we could and definitely would. In fact, I think it would a good feature to get opponents to critique their opponents performances on Slugger.

  • Gerry Lynch

    Sorry dude, but I’m laughing! The battle of the last seat will be interesting though, 3rd SDLP vs McCann in that order of likelihood, I think.

    SF have still to break 35% in Foyle in any election and they have no source of transfers other than McCann who will either be in the running until the last seat or, on past form, will transfer almost evenly between the SDLP and SF.

    Foyle is a measure of the long term stability, arguably even stagnation, of the SF vote in NI – 33.3% in both 2005 elections, 31.6% in Westminster last year.

  • mjh

    McCloskey and McCann could take three-quarters of a quota – or more – between them, on the basis of his performance in 2011 and that of the Independents in the last council elections.
    Provided they transfer well that probably increases the chances that both SF and the SDLP could have to settle for 2 seats each.

    Or will their votes be squeezed by a close fought head-to-head between the two nationalist leaders?

  • mickfealty

    I do think you are tempting fate on the debate thing Hugh. It’s generally not a strong point for SF even when it comes to the discussion of core issues that SF have major ownership over (see Alex on the UI debate:

    The focus on FDI shows some strategic awareness here I think. It’s not a pitch I would like to go out batting on as dFM since even though SF have never held the DETI post, he does to a large extent command the Executive’s agenda.

    Pointing at the MPs would have worked in the days before devolution. Pre-Europe it was Hume’s big calling card. Given FM and dFM are on a trade mission in the US right touting said ‘big idea’ of cutting corporation tax, SF has a hard case to answer.

    In a way, SF’s weakness here is that they don’t really do policy. And they don’t have time to learn between now and the next election. The internal brains trust have shipped down to Dublin and will depend on the SDLP being the usual damp squib.

    However, they’ve seen Fianna Fail take on Sinn Fein in a strategically defensive battle in Donegal, Sligo and Cavan Monaghan and win. Now would be the optimum time to go aggressively for SF’s weak spot and see what falls from the tree..

    The 3 into 2 remark was a core point. But as Pete Shirlow says ( the SDLP has to make a broader appeal than Sinn Fein to make it work for them. They do need to harden their policy and move in and own some of it, but probably not as urgently as you suggest.

    One, they don’t have time, but two, no one else owns enough policy real estate to either hold them to account for any shortfalls, or just plain old get in their way. I can only think of Mike Nesbitt owning mental health, but who else owns what territory?

  • mickfealty

    Quite so, and throwing the dFM at the problem is hardly an admission of strength.

  • mickfealty

    If it happens Barney. The gap last time was uncomfortably small for the SDLP. My scepticism though, beyond the figures above, is rooted in the fact there’s no wind in the system for Nationalism right now.

    SF can only really take a Derry or Upper Bann from another nationalist. They’re trying to make some micro local weather by moving Martin back home. But the SDLP are trying to make some counter weather of their own.

    Colum is now a leader (rather than a deputy leader). Rightly or wrongly that usually goes a long way with folk. In the naughties, they got a big shock when SF took the Euro seat so easily from them.

    The corollary was that Mark Durkan spent the next year banging doors in order to wake up the Derry Middle classes on the Culmore Road. It worked then, but its been slipping since. They need to wake them up again.

    And that’s the real test.

  • Jollyraj

    “continuing Unionist decline in the city”

    Cold house strategy working, is it?

  • Robin Keogh

    Or maybe it’s the birth rate? Possibly? or is it outside your ability to find a reason other than ‘themmuns’.

  • Charlie Goan

    Is this the same Hugh Brown who uses his twitter to tweet nothing else but criticism and abuse about the SDLP? This can hardly be classed as journalism but more a scathering attack on the SDLP. Maybe if you were able to get some more partial writers in then it would be a more interesting read other than pure propaganda

  • mickfealty

    No. But he has a right to speak, and you have a civil right to reply.

    PS, I’m proactively looking for volunteer Soapboxers to respond to Martin McGuinness’ Ard Fheis speech…

  • Charlie Goan

    Indeed, not debating his right to speak. However, This can hardly be classed as anything but a bitter outburst. Can you confirm or deny that @HBDerry is the above writer?

  • Was he actually there?

  • Charlie Goan

    I don’t know but having looking at his Twitter page I find it highly inappropriate how this Hugh Brown is sharing photos of SDLP Youth members with unkind captions and every single tweet is Anti-SDLP. Like I say again, this isn’t credible, this is propaganda

  • mickfealty

    He is, yes. As far as I know. And yes, as he says in the post, he was there.

  • eamoncorbett

    As i understand it the central plank of SDLP policy is uniting Ireland by first of all making NI work politically , as opposed to SF policy of setting out to prove that NI does not work politically. The problem I have with the SDLP vision is that if NI has a stable government and people in general are happy with that situation why would any sane person seek to change that . SF on the other hand revel in the heat of political battle and they’re at their most potent when in deep conflict with the DUP . Those are the choices facing Nationalism at the up coming election.

  • Robin Keogh


  • Urban Elder

    That this piece, filled with so many factual inaccuracies, has been allowed onto a blog that I have respect for is extremely disappointing. Any party that puts its stall forward should be prepared for criticism but the naked vitriol in this coupled with the mistruths is uncomfortable to read.

    “This new SDLP is a mixture of old and the not so old with very few fresh faces.”

    I saw on the platform party – Nichola Mallon, Daniel McCrossan, Conal Brown, Gerard Diver, Conor Duncan, Colin McGrath, Claire Hanna, Justin McNulty (from the SDLP list). All new faces and almost all first time Assembly candidates. The notion that there are very few fresh faces doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    “The SDLP AGM was arguably the smallest televised party conference the North has ever seen.”

    In a former life I was compelled to attend party conferences for work. I’d say the SDLP spring conference at the weekend had a bigger crowd than most DUP, UUP and Alliance party conferences I ever attended. No evidence for this claim from the OP either.

    “Eastwood didn’t take any chances in drawing a red line in his speech”

    Eastwood was criticised immediately after the speech by Rick Wilford and Mark Carruthers for drawing TOO MANY red lines. Criticism that was repeated on the Sunday Politics the next day (which TWO slugger commentators were featured on). From the transcript of the speech posted online he said –

    1)A fully costed and deliverable A5,
    2)The same for the A6,
    3) enhanced spending on higher education,
    4)an expanded UU campus at Magee,
    5) investment in infrastructure, jobs and education outside of Belfast alone underpinned by a ‘fairness promise’
    6) intensified North/South economic integration
    7) An all island infrastructure plan
    8) A financial compact running to 30 years with the treasury
    9) agreed spending increases for spending increases for vocational training, university places for undergraduates and postgraduates and apprenticeships.

    The assertion that there were no red lines is, objectively, a bare faced lie.

    “The SDLP are mired in the past and use the GFA as a battering ram for soundbites.”

    Was there a single mention of the Good Friday Agreement in Eastwood’s speech? Wasn’t it exclusively focussed on ‘future gazing’ as the Belfast telegraph puts it?

    The piece also criticises Eastwood for not having detailed plans. I have never heard the leader of a party in Ireland choose to give a detailed policy breakdown in a conference speech and this far out from an election. That’s what manifestos are for.

    This post was clearly written by someone with a bizarre hatred for Colum Eastwood and the SDLP. Others have pointed out the user’s content on Twitter (and that of the ‘Derry twitter user’ he quotes from). Both are ardent opponents of the SDLP, which is fine, but to be given a platform as a ‘Derry reader’ and not giving context to their biases is poor on the part of this blog.

    If the fatal inaccuracies cannot be corrected, this post should be removed. It has tainted the blog and its promoters.

  • Acrobat_747

    In all fairness Robin, you’d probably do a fairly balanced critique.

  • Acrobat_747

    If anything Martin McGuinness standing in Foyle could mess up the vote management plan.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The assumption that Sinn Féin supporters aren’t middle class and SDLP voters are isn’t always hold to be true. Durkan’s own ward includes Ballymagroaty and Rosemount.

  • Lionel Hutz

    It is very strange for this site to publish this. It’s always a good thing when the site has a variety of opinions. And there are many articles with opinions I don’t agree with. But at least they are rooted in facts are a reasonable commentary or interpretation of those facts. This is just bizarre. I’d go through the points that are based on simple lies but then that could possibly lead to some debate on the post and it doesn’t deserve that

  • Discuscutter

    A failure to procreate is the reason.