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SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell 'won't be dictator and expel critics'

By Suzanne Breen

Published 10/11/2015

Alasdair McDonnell
Alasdair McDonnell
Colum Eastwood

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell has said that had he been ruthless and expelled internal critics, the party might be more united than it is today.

However, Dr McDonnell stated he wasn't a dictator and defended the right of his staunchest opponents to have their say.

In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Dr McDonnell was asked why UUP leader Mike Nesbitt had been more successful than him in reversing his party's political and electoral fortunes.

Dr McDonnell said: "Well, he's got rid of a few people. I'm maybe not ruthless enough to throw people out. He threw out Basil McCrea, he threw out John McCallister, he threw out David McNarry

"I believe everybody should be in the tent, regardless of where they are. Maybe it leads at times to minor degrees of anarchy, but I believe in everybody's entitlement to have a say.

"I will not resort to diktat.

"I don't want a party controlled almost in military fashion, like Sinn Fein or the DUP. They're basically there in straitjackets."

The SDLP leader said he was committed to modernising the party and was unperturbed by opposition to him from prominent past and present figures like Seamus Mallon, Brid Rodgers, Sean Farren, Denis Haughey, Dolores Kelly, and Alex Attwood.

"The people you mentioned were good people in their day but that was 15 or 20 years ago," he said.

"The people supporting me are those who tend to have a bright future.

"They're fresh faces committed to change, like Daniel McCrossan in west Tyrone, Ritchie McPhillips in Fermanagh and Justin McNulty in Newry and Armagh."

With his leadership rival, Colum Eastwood, half his age, Dr McDonnell rejected claims he's a political dinosaur. "My drive has been to bring in new talent," he said. "The party today is not the party it was 10 years ago - 40% of elected councillors last year were new, 40% are women.

"Until then, the SDLP hovered around 22% female representation. I'm very committed but quietly - no noise about it - ensuring we have a good gender balance."

Dr McDonnell said 60% of his party's Assembly candidates next year would be new names and he wanted, over time, to bring in far more women MLAs. "The gender balance at Stormont really distresses me," he said.

"I know what the future looks like. I'm going there and I'm trying to bring the SDLP there. In doing so I've offended and upset people who looked to do more of the same, to keep on making the same mistakes and hoping it's a different result."

Dr McDonnell claimed he had improved SDLP fundraising and "turned the party around" in Fermanagh, Tyrone and Antrim, rebuilding links with grassroots activists. "This has all been hard work. I've been doing 14 and 15-hour days. I'm talking to people across kitchen tables, not in big grandiose meetings," he said.

"We had neglected our grassroots which is any party's lifeblood. I'd rather spend my time talking to a dozen people in the back room of a bar or community hall than hobnobbing around Stormont or Westminster."

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