Knives being sharpened for Alasdair McDonnell - but they won’t be unsheathed just yet

SDLP leader will need to draw on all his combative resources

There’s a sizeable rump in the SDLP which believes that this time next year the party will have a new leader. Current captain Dr Alasdair McDonnell might have different views, but if he is to offset that developing challenge he must draw on all his combative resources. And he’s nothing if not combative.

The Westminster general election is coming in May and right now nobody in the party is seriously thinking of pulling an Ed Miliband stunt by suggesting he should stand down ahead of that poll. “That would be stupid and counterproductive – the last thing we need going into an election,” said one senior rebel.

So, they’ll wait. They will kick into the election campaign presenting a united front and sometime thereafter they’ll attempt a velvet coup, they say. “We’re hoping for transition rather than expulsion,” said one senior player.

Won’t go quietly

But McDonnell, who was elected leader three years ago, succeeding South Down MP


Margaret Ritchie

, has never done things quietly.

Certainly, if he is to have any hope of remaining at the helm, he must hold his South Belfast seat, and Ms Ritchie and former leader Mark Durkan in Foyle must hold theirs. So, this conference was about injecting some resolution and energy into the troops for those battles.

However, apart from some of the leadership speculation taking place on the margins, the conference was all rather flat. That’s aside, of course, from the delivery by Maíria Cahill which certainly invigorated the delegates. But that was at a fringe event. She was speaking to the converted.

In the main conference room there was a sense of demoralisation and almost helplessness. How all the Maíria Cahill publicity has not damaged Sinn Féin was also adding to the dejection.

Electoral pact

Still, despite all these pressures, McDonnell displayed courage and principle by again strenuously rejecting the call from Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness for an electoral pact for the May election.

McGuinness wanted a free run for Sinn Féin in Fermanagh South Tyrone, Upper Bann and North Belfast, with some unspecified reciprocation offered. Sinn Féin pulling out of South Down, South Belfast and Foyle would certainly make life easier for the SDLP although the party genuinely believes the only real threat is in South Belfast, where a single agreed unionist candidate could unseat McDonnell.

“McGuinness wants three for one,” said one SDLP MLA. “I’d love to know where he shops.”

McGuinness accused the SDLP and McDonnell of lacking a "strategic vision" by rejecting the pact. McDonnell however was clear in holding to a core SDLP principle – also applied by Gerry Fitt and John Hume – that it is opposed to "sectarian headcount" politics.

But overall it’s a muddle. At the conference no one had a clear idea of how fortunes might improve. “Yes, Sinn Féin is a Teflon party,” said a senior figure, “but you never know, long runs the fox.”