Reviving fortunes slow work in progress for leader McDonnell


ANALYSIS:No elections loom and time remains to rebuild the party, but it will be needed

A kite was flown briefly over the Armagh City Hotel at the weekend. It was then taken down and life proceeded as normal for the SDLP.

The kite was party deputy leader Dolores Kelly suggesting the SDLP might go into formal opposition and take its single Minister, West Belfast Assembly member Alex Attwood, out of the Northern Executive.

But by Saturday evening Mr Attwood knew he could relax. Leader Alasdair McDonnell didn’t even mention the issue in his keynote speech. Ms Kelly could argue opposition was the way to resist the “DUP-Sinn Féin carve-up” at Stormont but Dr McDonnell wasn’t going to hand over the little bit of power the party enjoys.

Anyway he was more concentrated on rehearsing and rehearsing and making sure he wasn’t going to be blinded by camera lights or undermined by other mishaps.

He had learned his lesson well after last year’s disaster of a speech when bouncing light from the autocue left him annoyed and unable to read his script – live on television.

Black’s murder

There were no such catastrophes this time. While the autocue brought over specially from England failed to work, he nonetheless delivered his speech with passion by reading from a script.

The content was what you would expect. He attacked First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, of course, and predicted the SDLP would win back a European seat in the elections in 2014.

There was condemnation of David Black’s murder by republican dissidents and an insistence the killers had nothing to offer.

More than 300 people attended the conference, not a huge turnout by any means. Yet Dr McDonnell told delegates he was delivering on the promise he gave when he was elected leader last year, that he would restructure and re-energise the party.

And that’s absolutely critical to the future of the SDLP. Dr McDonnell said the party was preparing for council elections in 2014 and had appointed 40 local representatives who were shadowing existing councillors and were slowly putting down roots where the party was weak.

The SDLP prides itself on being the architects of the peace process. Many of them were in Armagh at the weekend: John Hume, Séamus Mallon, Eddie McGrady, Austin Currie, Hugh Logue, Ivan Cooper and Joe Hendron. However, if it is to survive and prosper it needs new generations of such politicians.

This is slow work in progress but there are no elections looming – apart from a MidUlster byelection when Martin McGuinness stands down as MP – so Dr McDonnell still has time to build. He’ll need it.