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SDLP: A party still troubled by the Budget

The SDLP is the last of the Executive parties to launch its manifesto. Political Correspondent Noel McAdam looks behind the rhetoric of the 52-page document and assesses its chances after yesterday’s launch event

What’s the big idea?

The SDLP is not short of ideas, even if many of them are recycled from its policy documents, New Priorities In Difficult Times, and Partnership And Economic Recovery, produced as the recession became the dominant political issue over the past three years.

And if SDLP arguments failed to find favour, or were ignored by the DUP and Sinn Fein Executive majority, have they any better chance of finding purchase in the next mandate?

Leader Margaret Ritchie has a simple but effective pitch — she insists the central issue is which party has the best ideas and is best placed to implement them. “What do people want? Building prosperity and uniting people,” she says. But the main manifesto emphasis, predictably, is on the creation of jobs.

Some key points

The party says it is open to negotiations on reducing Government departments but calls for a single Economy department, a new Department of Energy and Sustainability, a new Department for Learning and a new Communities, Housing and Local Government Department. While declaring even the current 11 departments are a “departure” from the Good Friday Agreement, it fails to clarify which should be axed or merged. Are we meant to guess?

It says infrastructure planning should happen in future on an all-Ireland basis, but arguing for a 25-year contract with the Treasury in London seems to long-finger Irish unity. The SDLP also prioritises a “re-framing” of the 11-plus stalemate. It insists Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s blueprint on a shared future in Northern Ireland “will have to be completely rewritten”.

So what is controversial?

The proposal for a brand new Budget in the first 100 days of the new Assembly may send shivers down the spines of even ardent SDLP supporters.

The party voted against the four-year plan now being implemented, even if its minister Alex Attwood didn’t go as far as Ulster Unionist counterparts Michael McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy in walking through the ‘No’ lobby.

It is certainly a risky strategy for the future, with the SDLP leaving itself open for criticism whether it succeeds in the aim of a “brand new Budget” or not.

But there are parts which look like a misused movie review — the kind where the film poster proclaims ‘fantastic’, while what the reviewer actually wrote was ‘far from fantastic’. On page 47 the highlighted words are “reducing the number of departments” whereas the full sentence reads “... the debate is about more than reducing the number of departments — although we are ready to enter serious all-party negotiations on this”.

How is the party mood?

The watchword is ‘renewal’. Ms Ritchie insists it is under way. And after years of being electorally eclipsed by the rise of Sinn Fein, there is a sense of resurgence in the party, particularly among young people.

It remains to be seen whether the buoyancy translates into votes in the polling booths next month.

Organisationally the SDLP has been a near-disaster zone for years and on the ground the situation could only improve.

Even party activists say “there is time and then there is SDLP time”, with the latter usually about half-an-hour behind the former — but then in terms of practical power-sharing, the country was almost half-a-century behind the party. Is it time for the SDLP?

How did the launch go?

The event room at the Ramada Encore wasn’t quite as cramped as the UUP but ran it close on being clammy and uncomfortable. It was a mistake to put forward six speakers in a row, even before we got to Ms Ritchie’s address. It was annoying, also, that having sat through several speeches, reporters were not allowed to ask questions from the floor.

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