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SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell: A bullish bruiser with plenty of fight but minimal tact

By Staff Reporter

Published 16/05/2015

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell

An American diplomat once told the State Department of fears that Dr Alasdair McDonnell could be like "a bull in a China shop" if he headed the SDLP.

It caused a fuss when it was released by Wikileaks and published in the Belfast Telegraph but, typically enough, Dr McDonnell rolled with the punches. He even revelled in the image - it was a good thing in a politician to be strong like a bull, he argued.

He certainly has a thick skin and a reputation as a bruiser, but this is a moment when his friends need to tell "Bull McDonnell" a few things that he may not have noticed.

He is the eldest of 11 children reared on a farm near Cushnedall. By blood, the McDonnells are Ulster Scots, a wild breed of interlopers.

Their capital is Ballycastle, where their most famous leader, Sorley Boy, ruled, but their roots are in Islay and Kintyre.

Alasdair left the farm to study medicine in UCD. He later said the RUC wrongly thought he was an IRA courier because of his frequent trips south. He attributed his mother's death from a stroke to the harassment which followed.

There were other early tragedies. One of his brothers died in 1970 after being struck by lightning while cutting turf at the top of a mountain. And his favourite brother was also electrocuted due, they thought, to a faulty electric blanket.

Dr McDonnell initially entered politics for the National Democratic Party, a successor to the old Nationalist Party, which largely merged with the SDLP in 1970.

His political career has given him broad experience of politics, in Westminster, Stormont and local government.

He married a younger wife, Olivia, late in life, and they have four young children at an age (65) when most men are grandfathers.

He has built up the party, but he has been poor on the media since his first appearance, when he was dazzled by the autocue.

He tends to brush aside criticisms and is not always consistent. He does not suffer fools gladly and at times makes policy on the hoof. These are not good qualities in a leader. They wouldn't matter so much in an organiser who spends his time talking to party insiders and recruits.

Dr McDonnell has halted, or at least slowed, the slide in the SDLP. This is a high point for him, he should not turn it into a debacle by keeping fighting against the advice of party elders.

To go back to the Wikileaks analogy, that is how bullfights end. You know the bull is beaten when it lashes out and shows courage. Bulls have no choice, but human beings do.

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