SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell is what is known in parts of Ulster as a thran man. That means he is stubborn. He is also a political bruiser imbued with a Glens of Antrim never-say-die obstinacy that has him battling for his leadership, contrary to the earnest advice of party grandees.
Up against 66-year-old McDonnell is the young challenger, 32-year-old Colum Eastwood from Derry. The contrast is not only in age. Eastwood is a cool, calm and collected individual, tending to be strategic in his thinking, quiet but assured.
What is at stake is more than just the leadership of the SDLP.
The future of the party as a significant political actor is in play. The SDLP is demoralised. It has 14 Assembly seats, one more than the Ulster Unionist Party, but unlike in the UUP, the mood is downbeat and disheartened. Some fear without radical change the party could be down to 10 or 12 seats in next May's Assembly elections. That would put it close to the standing of the Alliance Party.
McDonnell says he needs another “year to 18 months” to fix the party. Eastwood and his supporters say they do not have the luxury of such time, that if a new leader is not installed on Saturday evening at the party’s annual conference in Armagh, the SDLP will be in even more dire straits than it is at the moment.
This head-to-head has been coming for the past year. McDonnell was put on notice at last November’s annual conference by a sizeable rump of the SDLP that his time as leader would be short. The unstated plan was not to change leader in advance of last May’s Westminster poll but thereafter McDonnell should stand down.
The desire was for a “velvet coup”, that if McDonnell was re-elected as MP for South Belfast, he would have the excuse of stepping aside for a new leader so he could concentrate on his House of Commons work. Under legislation, politicians cannot sit in both the Assembly and the House of Commons.
Under fierce pressure, McDonnell held South Belfast and the party's two other MPs were returned, former leaders Margaret Ritchie in South Down and Mark Durkan in Foyle. That was a pretty good result, but the expectation remained that McDonnell would, like Durkan and Ritchie, step aside so he could concentrate on his work on the green benches.
When the men and women in grey suits come calling, politicians normally listen, but not McDonnell. After that result, former SDLP deputy first minister and deputy leader Séamus Mallon and former minister for agriculture Bríd Rodgers used the pages of the Irish News to advise McDonnell to go.
He refused. “I’m not going to run away from a task half done,” he said.
“I will win,” he added, when asked what would happen if he were challenged. He says he will win on Saturday too.
It was a big call for Eastwood to go against him. He left it late, not declaring until the end of September. As Eastwood pointed out, if he were a self-serving politician he might have left his challenge until after May when, many party members fear, the SDLP will suffer badly in the Assembly election. Then, such thinking went, McDonnell would have no defence. But Eastwood’s goal is to start restoring fortunes now.
Mallon and Rodgers were joined by such senior figures as former minister Seán Farren and Mark Durkan in declaring their support for Eastwood. But still McDonnell was not budging.
One of the complaints against McDonnell is that he is a poor media performer, that he fails to make his point clearly, can lose his rag in interviews and in recent months has become increasingly reluctant to engage openly with journalists. His organisational strengths are acknowledged but “where is the vision and public leadership?”, dispirited party members ask.
“We need to be clear about our message, we need to communicate it properly, we need to rally people to our side,” says Eastwood, a former mayor of Derry.
McDonnell should go “because we have had some very bad election results – we should be honest about that”, he says.
“We need to shift gear and begin the process of renewal and rebuilding. Everybody knows it is not going to be easy, but we’ve had 15 years of Sinn Féin being in charge of nationalism and eight years of DUP-Sinn Féin governments, and where are we? People are fed up, they want to see normal politics.”
In his defence, McDonnell makes a couple of points. “It is not all about broadcast media. It is about putting the party back on its feet,” he says.
He points out that in the 2011 Assembly elections the SDLP polled 14.2 per cent when Margaret Ritchie was leader. In the three elections he has overseen since, the SDLP polled 14.5 per cent, 13 per cent and 13.9 per cent, not hugely different to the 2011 Assembly result.
Between the Westminster elections of 2001 and the Assembly elections of 2011, the SDLP vote dropped from 21 per cent to 14.2 per cent, he adds.
“I took over when the party had sunk to a very low ebb. The party has been on a recovery phase over the last couple of years. I have worked very hard to bring it around but that’s work in progress. I want to see it completed and I believe I need another year to 18 months to do that.”
McDonnell says he is bringing new talent into the SDLP, he has increased the representation of women and he is restructuring the party so it can put up a credible challenge to Sinn Féin.
Over the coming days, more than 300 delegates at the SDLP conference in the Armagh City Hotel must decide who offers the best chance of regeneration. When you have senior figures ranged against you, when the party is flat, anxious and appearing rudderless, you would think the odds would be in favour of Eastwood.
And so they are, but just about. Last week bookmakers had Eastwood 1/4 to win with McDonnell 5/2. Now the odds are narrowing, 4/7 for Eastwood, 11/10 for McDonnell.
It is a big call for the delegates, but regardless of who is leading the party on Saturday – the thran man or the calm Derry man – it is tough and worrying times for the SDLP.