SDLP plans to debate contentious issue of abortion in the New Year
The SDLP will hold a special conference in the New Year to deal with hot potato constitutional issues including abortion.
Last night Dr Alasdair McDonnell confirmed that the new conference would be held before March 1 and will be conducted without the press being present.
"In the context of the European election we need a rally in February or March anyway so we will hold a one day private conference around these issues", he said.
The SDLP constitution commits the party to a pro-life/anti abortion position, something many members like justice spokesperson Alban Maginness and chief whip Pat Ramsay are committed to on moral grounds. Others think it gives them an electoral advantage over Sinn Fein which is more liberal on the issue. SDLP elected representatives are not allowed to vote in support of more permissive abortion legislation if it comes up.
Two motions tabled for last weekend's party conference by Balmoral and Bellevue branches, advocated a free vote on the issue while a third, tabled by Mr Maginness's Cavehill/Fortwilliam Branch, sought to reaffirm the party's "unequivocal pro life view".
These were amongst several constitutional and organisational motions scheduled for a closed session on Saturday morning. However, there was not time to deal with them properly.
"We have a lot of stuff on the agenda including victims issues like the Disappeared and collusion so we were stuck for time. There was enough material in the private session to take up three or four hours and the whole thing was crunched," Dr McDonnell added.
Our survey of members showed divided views on abortion, with 26% regarding it as murder and over a third wanting it to be made available to any woman, after counselling on the alternatives.
The conference heard calls for the SDLP to surrender its seat on the Executive and move into opposition. Senior figures including Margaret Ritchie, an MP and former leader, and Dolores Kelly, the deputy leader publicly endorsed the idea.
Dr McDonnell said he didn't envisage it happening within this assembly term, which ends in 2016. He argued there is no legal provision or defined role for an official opposition at Stormont.
He said: "I don't see it happening unless there is legislation to underpin it. I am very open if people have ideas on how to advance the situation but I believe that we have to stay in there at the present time working through the Haass agenda. We need to be part of the Executive and trying to make it work."