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Leadership hopeful would need to prove his party is a viable alternative to Sinn Fein instead of nationalism's poor relation

By Liam Clarke

Published 29/09/2015

When the SDLP was formed in a deliberate attempt to smash the old Nationalist Party in 1970, there was a debate about what to call it.

The meeting was in Toome. John Hume, a 'Young Turk' at that point, wanted to call it the SDLP because Social Democracy was the force changing Europe and it would ally the party to that.

Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt, who had both previously stood under labour banners, wanted labour first.

Fitt switched sides with characteristic humour. "We can't be called the LSD party," he pronounced.

The interesting thing was that nobody mentioned the word nationalist going first, or if they did it doesn't get remembered. The SDLP got overtaken by Sinn Fein after John Hume, its most revered leader, helped republicans in from the cold.

That broke the taboo of voting for them and has left the SDLP with an identity crisis. John Hume envisaged "a post-nationalist Europe" and it is hard to imagine him carrying a coffin at a republican funeral.

Mr Eastwood mentions nationalism so often that it is almost as if he was looking over his shoulder at Sinn Fein, though he says not. There is very little that could not have come from a Sinn Fein candidate now that the violence has ended and consent is accepted.

He also talks of ensuring that Northern Ireland does not become a failed political entity, which is something that unionists should be pleased about.

It has been a unionist fear that nationalists would destroy the province as the road to unity - that was the IRA's strategy in their "economic war". Here is one nationalist who wants it to work and then have a conversation about unity by consent. He wants to be in Stormont to do that.

Edward Carson would have been happy with that. Mr Eastwood needs to develop such thinking if the SDLP is to ever become a cross-community party, something many of its founders set themselves as a goal. Dolores Kelly, who is standing as deputy again, also has some interesting ideas which she thinks Mr Eastwood will be more eager than Alasdair McDonnell to promote.

She proposes actively promoting integrated education, something that would put her at odds with the Catholic Church.

She felt Dr McDonnell was too old guard, quoting his claim that the DUP didn't want "a Taig about the place".

She said: "This sort of language may connect with the generation who experienced discrimination but it doesn't appeal to young voters."

If Eastwood overtakes McDonnell, who is at the UK Labour conference, then that will just be the start of his troubles. He has to decide a future for the party, broadly nationalist/republican or social democratic/labour to try and reverse the party's headlong decline as Mike Nesbitt appears to have done in the UUP.

Steady as she goes isn't an option - that way lies oblivion. There is still time for fight back but it will take hard choices.

Just as well he is a young man when he is facing such challenges.

Belfast Telegraph

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