A new generation takes over the helm at the SDLP
Colum Eastwood has to find the unique selling point in battle with Sinn Féin
In politics like football the manager gets the blame for poor team performance, whether his team is up to it or the opposition is even remotely playable. SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell, so unceremoniously dumped at the weekend party conference, was on a hiding to nothing. The declining party lost a further 2.6 percentage points of its vote at the last Westminster election and an internal leaked paper seen by the Irish News warns that it could lose a third of its 14 Assembly seats in elections next May.
Northern politics has been dominated for many years by political leaders of the Troubles generation: John Hume and Ian Paisley succeeded by men of a younger, but not much younger, vintage like Gerry Adams and Peter Robinson who had emerged in the Troubles and years of peace-process-speak and interminable negotiations. Like it or not, McDonnell, who had served as leader for the last four years, appeared to be cut from the same cloth. And if the SDLP is to break out of terminal decline, throwing in its lot with a new generation may be the only way to do so.
Colum Eastwood at 32, the sixth leader of the party, is perhaps that chance. A nationalist with a strong commitment to a united Ireland, Eastwood has got to carve out a new unique selling point for a party whose clothes have been largely stolen by the dynamic, street-credible, reinvented Sinn Féin, a reality he acknowledged in his first speech as leader.
The ground he has staked is based on a gamble about how far voters in the North think Sinn Féin has actually gone down the road of what he called “democratic nationalism”. He insisted that the SDLP would help to “make Northern Ireland work”, counting on the sense that many exasperated voters have that although Sinn Féin may be seen to have embraced democratic politics, it does not appear to be sold on the corollary that it must also now contribute to building stable and sustainable politics in the North. The SDLP will argue that such an ambition is entirely compatible with – and essential to – its aspiration to persuade unionists eventually to join a united Ireland.