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Next generation take helm of the party's sinking ship

By Suzanne Breen

Published 16/11/2015

Look how old and outdated Colum Eastwood makes Sinn Fein leaders seem. They were once the young Turks of Northern nationalism compared to the well worn, familiar figures of the SDLP.

Those roles are now reversed. Colum Eastwood is 32 years old to Gerry Adams' 67 and Martin McGuinness' 65. Along with the increasingly high-profile Claire Hanna, the SDLP has handed over the baton to the next generation whereas Sinn Fein stubbornly clings to the past.

The party has taken a leap of faith in electing Colum Eastwood as leader, still a first term MLA. Yes, he was Lord Mayor of Derry but his term of office there, along with his four years at Stormont, was largely unremarkable.

His successful campaign for the SDLP leadership was big on style but short on substance. His critics rightly point to the lack of detail as to how he will move the party forward.

His supporters insist that he will grow into the job. Let's hope he does because the current lack of competition for the nationalist vote in many areas of Northern Ireland is hugely unhealthy for democracy.

Sinn Fein is not as unassailable as people think. The party's vote fell a substantial 17% in West Belfast in May's general election. But it wasn't the SDLP, rather it was the young radical Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit, on the rise - he secured 19% of the vote in his first Westminster contest.

Similarly in Derry, independent republicans made major gains in last year's council elections and Dr Anne McCloskey looks set to be elected as an independent MLA in Foyle next May.

So there is an appetite for change in the nationalist community but those parties and candidates who have made gains have all have a strongly distinct image from Sinn Fein. Without that, voters aren't energised to switch allegiance.

The SDLP has been too timid for too long. It must put clear green water between itself and its rival, and not just on the issue of IRA violence. It needs to inspire people who have grown bored with the same old platitudes about the Good Friday Agreement.

Big ideas and bold thinking are required. Mike Nesbitt has reaped the rewards of taking his party into opposition at Stormont. The unionist community liked being surprised, as opinion polls show. Had Alasdair McDonnell done the same, he might still be leader.

The SDLP must show courage, even if that means stepping into the unknown with policy changes. By standing on the same old ground, it faces extinction.

In politics, communication is half the battle and, here, Colum Eastwood has a major advantage over his predecessor.

Nobody was more unselfishly committed to the SDLP than Alasdair McDonnell. Nobody put in more hours and effort into organising the party at grassroots level. But sometimes it was one step forward and two steps back.

All Alasdair's endeavours in turning the party into a more electable outfit could be blown by a bumbling TV performance losing the SDLP countless votes in a handful of seconds. And, no matter how unfair or hurtful it might be for McDonnell, the public just didn't take to him.

Eastwood has the likeability factor but that will only get him so far. He may currently be the media darling but Sinn Fein will ruthlessly expose any future shortcomings.

The Foyle MLA will be on a steep learning curve. His problem is the lack of time in which he has to deliver, with the Assembly elections only six months away.

Questions have also been raised about whether he is prepared for the punishing schedule of being leader, travelling to all arts and parts of the countryside to meet local branches after a long day at Stormont.

But Eastwood will enjoy a bounce with his party and the public following his election. His first priority internally must be to unite the SDLP since 44% of delegates voted against him.

Alasdair McDonnell was never capable of mending fences and building a broad church as Mike Nesbitt has done in the UUP. Alasdair has been battling all his life and that's his modus operandi. Eastwood is not a divisive figure and he should be able to heal internal divisions.

A key decision will be whether he keeps Mark H Durkan - unlike his uncle, a McDonnell supporter - as Environment Minister, or whether he shafts him for Alex Attwood or Patsy McGlone.

Eastwood must ensure that young members promoted by McDonnell, like the highly impressive Daniel McCrossan, the west Tyrone Assembly candidate, continue to be promoted. Generosity to his predecessor's supporters is essential.

There's a heavy load resting on his young shoulders. Coming months will show whether the SDLP panicked and elected a lightweight who is totally out of his depth, or whether the young captain can rescue the sinking ship.

Belfast Telegraph

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