Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Alex Attwood: Dark horse becomes front runner in race to lead SDLP

Alex Attwood

Alex Attwood received a boost yesterday after his brother and close adviser Tim handed him the latest bookies odds which made him a narrow favourite to lead the SDLP.

Continuing his series of interviews with the candidates for the SDLP leadership, Political Editor Liam Clarke talks to Alex Attwood about his prospects for landing the top job

Alex Attwood: growing in confidence

When the race started he was a 14/1 outsider but now he is on 11/8, close to even money, to win.

All this, he says, confirms his growing confidence that support is building and he could win. Though, of course, the other three candidates also feel that things are going their way and, in the absence of opinion polls, it is hard to judge their claims.

The betting on Mr Attwood may be partly thanks to the public endorsement of party veterans like Eddie McGrady and Sean Farren, both of whom share his view that the SDLP must seriously consider going into opposition.

Some say Margaret Ritchie, the outgoing leader, is also quietly rooting for him.

That could help deliver her powerful Co Down machine, the SDLP’s strongest area of organisation, to him; but, given her fall from grace, it could be a mixed blessing elsewhere.

He seldom criticised Ms Ritchie. She twice appointed him minister, enraging other party members like her deputy Patsy McGlone, who were passed over. Some people say he supported her too long after it was clear that she could not survive and become associated with failure.

“I don’t see it like that,” he said. “It is the duty of politicians to be loyal to the party leader, whoever it is. It is seldom good politics, or good for the party, to allow the leader to become isolated.”

The shortening odds may also reflect his showing at a series of internal hustings, the latest in Omagh, where he reportedly performed quite well.

“Alex had detailed ideas and he seemed confident; one of the big fears about him was that, like Margaret, he might not come across well in the media. Many people feel that has been allayed at the hustings,” a party insider said.

“We reckon a lot of the money bet in a market like this is from people who have an inside track, or think they do,” said Ken Robertson of Paddy Powers.

“In most elections we use opinion polls but in this one we have none, so we basically react to the money. Running a market on the SDLP is not unlike ante-post betting on a horse race and, over the last ten weeks, Alex has been the most strongly supported, so we revised the odds.”

The change in odds isn’t based on the sort of cash placed

on the favourite’s nose at the Grand National.

Around £1,500 has been bet on Mr Attwood, compared to just £1,000 on Patsy McGlone, the second favourite whose odds have remained unchanged at 7/4 since the outset of the contest. £700 in bets has put Conall McDevitt on 3/1 and Dr Alasdair McDonnell, who started off favourite, has fallen to 6/1 after only £548 in bets were taken on him.

Mr Attwood has his sights set firmly on the European elections in 2014, when new councils may also be voted on. He believes the “SDLP must restore its political authority by then”.

A key to this, as he sees it, is forming a close working relationship with the Irish Government.

“I want to see us standing outside government buildings in Dublin with the Taoiseach and Tánaiste saying they now believed it was time to liberate north south co-operation and calling on other parties, particularly the DUP, to embrace that approach” he said.

In these bi-partisan days securing that sort of endorsement will take some doing.

Pofile

Critics say Alex Attwood lacks the charisma to inspire a wounded party. Despite this his age, 52, and background would be considered a classic preparation for leadership in most social democratic parties. A bright grammar school kid, he graduated in law from Queen’s, cutting his political teeth as President of the Student’s Union. He combined his solicitor's practice with the role of a City Councillor for working class West Belfast. After being talent spotted by John Hume he has been central to most political negotiations since the 1997 Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and has twice served as a minister.

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