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My plain-speaking family doctor is an anachronism in age of slick PR politics

By Henry McDonald

Published 26/09/2015

First I must declare a dog in the fight: I have known Alasdair McDonnell for more than three decades and quite like the guy.

The good doctor may be under fire at present over his unique brand of leadership and the way he appears to stumble from one gaffe to another, but he has been a good friend and confidante to me for more than half my life.

As the family GP he went above and beyond for me when in 1996 a lump the size of a satsuma orange swelled up inside my right groin area and, for some time until the biopsy before Christmas that year, we all feared the worst.

His health advice while blunt was always effective and, behind the gruff exterior, was genuinely caring. In short, he could not have done enough for me and my family in that very dark and menacing period when the 'C' word was never far away from my thoughts and fears.

Gruffness is an operative word when it comes Dr McDonnell's leadership of the SDLP. In the political world of soft-focus, slick PR, spin-doctoring and televisual airbrushing, Dr McDonnell stands out as an often blundering anachronism.

He has even made a joke at party conference about being a bull in a china shop - so it is hardly surprising that he has proverbially trod in the doo-doo once more with his remarks about Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party while opening the new SDLP constituency office in Glengormley this week.

Dr McDonnell said that the DUP didn't want a 'Taig' (a horribly offensive word if ever there was one) about the place while Sinn Fein, he noted, cannot tell the difference between a truth and a lie especially when it came to the IRA.

Many commentators will regard these remarks as yet another example of McDonnellesque boobs, of the SDLP leader again putting his foot in it. Even some of his own party colleagues like Dolores Kelly have come out criticising him for the remarks, which ironically are probably shared by many others among the SDLP rank and file.

Yet the biggest boob of all that Dr McDonnell is guilty of is not speaking forthrightly about DUP ministers referring to nationalists as "rogues" or Gerry Adams' laughable pretence that he was never in the IRA.

Rather the real, gigantic mistake the SDLP makes is to continue for a single day longer inside the Northern Ireland Executive.

After all, how can he continue to refer to his cabinet colleagues in the power-sharing coalition in some disparaging terms while remaining all chummy and collaborative with them in government?

If Dr McDonnell feels he should robustly defend his off-the-cuff remarks in Glengormley then he should back up these words with one action.

The South Belfast MP's last act as leader if he does step down this autumn should be to advise his party that their future lies in a cross-community opposition with the Ulster Unionists in parliament.

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