200 delegates gathered in St Columb’s Hall for the SDLP conference. Gathering in the party heartland of Derry after a terrible year the SDLP is doing some soul-searching about its future. Recent polls have shown the party is still struggling to gain traction with the electorate.
This conference is aimed at beginning the fightback for the party and what they are betting the house on is a New Movement for a New Ireland.
This idea is not an original one. The SDLP has always argued for a New Ireland, but the party is aiming to put more meat on the bones of the concept and become the persuaders for it. Ultimately using the premise that Sinn Fein can only take this project so far and that Alliance won’t advance it at all, this is where the party can position itself.
Colum Eastwood was the main attraction of the day with his leader’s speech. Below are a few excerpts of his remarks.
On the DUP’s opposition to the Windsor framework
We are gathered here in the week that Westminster voted by 515 votes to 29 to back the new Windsor framework between the European Union and the British Government.And yet despite that overwhelming vote, the DUP are still digging their heals in. To paraphrase a great man – if the word ‘No’ was removed from the English language Jeffrey, Jim and Jamie would be left speechless. I know the irony is obviously lost on them – but it turns out that even British parliamentary democracy doesn’t cut the mustard with Ian Paisley Junior and the DUP
On Stormont reform;
The SDLP has already set out an ambitious agenda for reform of the Assembly. Under our proposals, the titles of the First Ministers would be made equal to reflect their equal standing in government.We would return to co-nomination of the heads of government and require a weighted majority vote for their election. We would reduce the number of votes subject to one party veto and end the abuse of the petition of concern to deny people their rights. And we would introduce a new weighted majority vote to appoint the new Speaker. It’s time to remove the poisonous politics of veto from the beginning of every mandate.
On an agenda in Opposition;
That is why the first priority for the SDLP opposition in a new Assembly will be to address the outrageous cost of childcare. It is so compelling an idea – even Jeremy Hunt and the Tories get it. There is no good reason why parents here are offered less than half of the free childcare given to parents elsewhere on these islands. Working families see progress in Britain. They see the Irish government investing billions in a new childcare programme. They are sick to death of childcare bills costing them more than their mortgage.The childcare costs crisis is an emergency and it is a scandal that Stormont has let it go on this long.So this is our pledge – the SDLP will work day and night to deliver 30 hours free childcare per week for the parents of all children under the age of five.
There was also a dig at the Alliance party
Conference, reconciliation has to begin with reconciling yourself with the truth. If we want to restore our place on the international stage,If we want to rejoin the community of nations and get back home to the EU then it can only be done in a New Ireland. And anyone serious about rejoining the European Union cannot sit this one out.
On the tough election for the party;
Conference, among friends let me speak candidly to you. Our party has just been through a bruising electoral contest that exacted a high price from our parliamentary team. Polls and surveys have not made for comfortable reading. I know how it feels to read the commentary from the naysayers about the future of our party. But remember, the adversity we face now is nothing compared to the adversity this party has shouldered in the past.The people writing this party off were writing us off in the nineties. They were writing us off in the early 2000s. And they will be writing us off until kingdom come. The people in this hall today, and the many friends and colleagues outside, the values they represent and the vision we set for this island can never be written off.
The SDLP are clearly bruised from their recent election campaign. Delegates know they are up against it and that the poor poll ratings for the party are not helping lift their mood. Eastwood gave a good speech and the delegates were enthused about the message they were hearing from their leader. The fundamental problem is not Eastwood’s ability to deliver a speech, it is the ability to have that argument gain traction outside the conference hall and the city of Derry.
The strategy from the party is to go all in on a New Ireland. They believe this is the electoral real estate that can sustain them for the long term.. This is not a new idea, nor are they pretending that it is. However, this is something that they need to see as a long term ambition. It has to be something that no matter how low their poll ratings go or how bad any particular election is, they stick with.
In recent times, the SDLP has bounced around from making Northern Ireland work with Vote Colum, get Mike to the Fianna Fail partnership. Neither have lasted, but the party can not afford another sharp turn. Whether they like Alliance & Sinn Fein or not, there is a concrete narrative for both that they stick with. SDLP needs to learn that lesson.
The best performers in the party can be as good at speaking and interviews as they like, if it’s not underpinned by an over-arching narrative, it has limited impact. A New Ireland, come what may, has to be the watchword.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs