Alasdair McDonnell defends leadership record

SDLP leader says Stormont seems to lurch from one crisis to another

Dr Alasdair McDonnell has defended his record as leader of the SDLP and said he wants to continue in the role so that the party can be ready, not just for next May’s Assembly elections, but for elections for the next 20 years. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dr Alasdair McDonnell has defended his record as leader of the SDLP and said he wants to continue in the role so that the party can be ready, not just for next May’s Assembly elections, but for elections for the next 20 years. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Dr Alasdair McDonnell has defended his record as leader of the SDLP and said he wants to continue in the role so that the party can be ready, not just for next May’s Assembly elections, but for elections for the next 20 years.

Dr McDonnell effectively used elements of his keynote speech to the SDLP conference in Armagh on Saturday to urge delegates to vote for him in his leadership contest with challenger, Colum Eastwood, an Assembly member from Derry.

The result of that election, in which just over 300 delegates are entitled to vote, will be known on Saturday evening.

Dr McDonnell also indicated that if he is successful, he doesn’t intend to remain as leader for an inordinate period although he did not specify when he would stand down.

“I’m not Robert Mugabe - I don’t intend to stay forever or even for a moment longer than needed to get the immediate job done,” he said.

“We need proper succession planning at all levels in this party because it is absolutely integral to the project of continuous party renewal which is already well under way,” he added.

Dr McDonnell said when he was elected leader in 2011 the “political obituaries” were being written for the SDLP. He said then he would do three things: recruit new candidates; re-organise the party and; make the party battle-ready for elections not just this year or next but for the next twenty years.

“I never promised you overnight success but I believe we are moving in the right direction,” he said.

“Well we have the candidates, we have the issues and policies nailed down, we have the party structures better organised and we are ready to do electoral battle in the years ahead,” he said.

“I intend to make good on my promise of party renewal but that work is not yet complete.”

Dr McDonnell said the project of renewal was happening. Generational changes were happening in the SDLP. “We have helped to breathe life into branches and discovered some exceptional new faces that will be future key players in the party,” he said.

On the talks to stabilise Stormont, which are to resume on Monday, Dr McDonnell said: “We may be on our way to another half-baked agreement but how long before we are back for more discussions in Stormont House III? The public are sick, sore and tired of political inertia and to be honest so am I. We need long-term solutions.”

“We seem to lurch from one crisis to another at Stormont. We risk facing a future of recurring deadlock and crisis management if we don’t start addressing the fundamental issues holding our society and our people back,” he added.

Dr McDonnell said that while people railed “every day on the radio against Stormont stalemate, there is no evidence whatsoever that the responsible parties are suffering any electoral damage”.

He said that the SDLP must refuse to be a “mud-guard for the problem parties any longer”.

And he continued, “The DUP always put their party political interests rather than people first. Can that go on indefinitely? There has to be a better way.

“And let me predict what will be the central thrust of our next Assembly election. On the DUP side the slogan will be: ‘Vote for us or else Martin McGuinness might be your next First Minister’.

“And the response from Sinn Féin will be: ‘Vote for us and yes, Martin McGuinness will be First Minister’.

“Who needs policies and programmes when we can reduce democratic debate to such simplicities? Well, actually all the rest of our people need policies and programmes.”

Dr McDonnell said Northern Ireland needed a “prosperity process” and a means of substantially reducing the annual £10 billion subvention from Britain. “I believe that the fiscal deficit is an unspoken but absolute barrier to Irish unity. Unless we make Northern Ireland work economically our dream of Irish unity is just a forlorn pie in the sky,” he said.

Dr McDonnell said Northern Ireland had a population of 1.8 million with less than half of them economically active.

“If we can create the space for one million people here getting into work then we are one step closer to bringing the people of Ireland together,” he added. “If we make Northern Ireland work the case for a United Ireland becomes a lot more compelling.”

Dr McDonnell said it was time “for all parties to speak out on some paramilitaries who took the benefits of the peace process and are still wreaking havoc in communities across Northern Ireland”.

“We want an end to all paramilitary activity and the mafia like community control that flows for it. It is not enough for them to have a non-aggression pact with the British but continue to oppress ordinary people in deprived communities,” he said.

“The recent Independent Panel Report has provided Sinn Feín with a unique opportunity to break the political deadlock by just telling the truth. The report issues a challenge to the whole nationalist community North and South.

“Awful crimes were and unfortunately still are being carried out in the name of the people of Ireland, in your name and my name. We can’t turn a blind eye to that.”

Dr McDonnell said that dealing with the past has been extremely difficult. “The British government wants to sweep as much as possible, of the past and the dirty war under a carpet, a carpet of national security, we will not agree to that. No crimes can be concealed by a blanket of national security.”

“If we are to build a better future for our children then we must deal with the past in a truthful and ethical way. Truth and reconciliation are inextricably bound,” he added.

Dr McDonnell warned that the UK leaving the EU would have a “devastating impact not just on the City of London and other major British cities but it would have adverse consequences for trade between Britain and Ireland”.

“The SDLP have a pivotal role to play in leading the all-Ireland debate,” he added. Sinn Féin and the unionists are not committed in any meaningful way to Europe. The SDLP are the only party prepared to show leadership on this vital issue and to advocate strongly for the European Union, ” he said.

At the start of his conference speech Dr McDonnell remembered those killed and injured in the Paris attacks while the delegates then stood for a period of silence.