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

If Dr McDonnell is to have any hope of remaining at the helm, he must hold his South Belfast seat. Photograph: Bill Smyth/PA

If Dr McDonnell is to have any hope of remaining at the helm, he must hold his South Belfast seat. Photograph: Bill Smyth/PA

 

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

Margaret Ritchie

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

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.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.