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SDLP blueprint paints pessimistic picture of future polling

By Liam Clarke

Published 16/05/2015

SDLP's Alex Attwood
SDLP's Alex Attwood

The elephant in the room for the SDLP is a report sent out from headquarters that was meant to be a planning document but ended up frightening the horses.

The party report graphed up the results of the recent Westminster election and projected it onto the Assembly. It found the SDLP could be down from 14 seats to nine.

They would have none in West Belfast and only one in the south of the city. That means goodbye Alex Attwood, one of the party's most able performers, and possibly goodbye Fearghal McKinney, Dr McDonnell's main supporter.

If Mr McKinney was acting in his own self-interest he would be discouraging Dr McDonnell from resigning and co-opting Claire Hanna who could well take the only seat. These projections are pessimistic. They are based on first preference results and the SDLP takes many low seats on transfers. Mr Attwood got in on the 10th count in West Belfast for instance so they should do better, but the party is alarmed.

Dr McDonnell is seen as having built up branches. Dr Joe Hendron talks of attending SDLP youth meeting in Strabane and Beechmount full of young people recruited by Dr McDonnell. If that is what he likes there is no reason he should not continue with this work outside the role of party leader. Organiser would be the sort of title that would cover that.

Dr McDonnell has also built up whatever the opposite of Brownie points are. When he took over he was blinded by the house lights, he has often bumbled, put his foot in it or contradicted himself on television.

In this election he also landed the SDLP with a lot of baggage which may have helped now but is less likely to in the long-term. For instance he embraced traditionalist Catholic positions, which seemed out of character in time, on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. The idea was to give people a reason not to vote Sinn Fein, but these positions are likely to be less useful in the future.

One of the things protecting Dr McDonnell is the absence of an obvious successor.

Colin Eastwood's supporters are at present said to be trawling around branches to assess support and see if 10 want an AGM.

We will know they are really serious if they take a confidence vote among MLAs and MPs, something which insiders say Dr McDonnell would lose.

That won't happen on Monday, as the group meeting then is cancelled, but after that all bets are off.

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