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SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell admits he could quit inside a year

By Liam Clarke

Published 16/05/2015

Alasdair McDonnell and his wife Olivia Nugent on their way to vote at St Brides PS in South Belfast, with daughter Aileen
Alasdair McDonnell and his wife Olivia Nugent on their way to vote at St Brides PS in South Belfast, with daughter Aileen

Beleaguered Alasdair McDonnell has admitted for the first time that he could step down as SDLP leader next year.

Dr McDonnell was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph as the clamour for him to resign intensified within his party.

Concerns have been expressed by several senior figures that an MLA must lead the party into next year's Assembly elections. He has already signalled his intention to stand down as an MLA to concentrate on his Westminster work.

Dr McDonnell, who was elected leader in 2011, said: "When I stood for election and I told people that if they wanted more of the same they shouldn't vote for me. I told people what I was going to do, I was going to rebuild the party, I was going to sort out the centre of balance.

"I was going to bring in a new generation. That task is under way. I have six months or more, maybe 12 months work ahead of me. I will be doing all I can to ensure that we have a good slate of candidates going into the Assembly election next year."

Asked if this meant he wanted to lead the party into next May's Assembly elections but not much beyond, he replied: "I don't have an ego; I want to complete the task I started, which has at least 12 months to run until the Assembly elections."

He added: "That is not a time limit but it is the next stage of the journey."

Dr McDonnell will hope that this approach - he had previously said he would just continue - will buy him time with party activists. He pitches it in terms of being allowed to complete his mission.

Last night Dr Joe Hendron, who was SDLP MP for West Belfast in the party's glory days, appeared willing to give Dr McDonnell time. He is the first elder statesman to do so. Already Seamus Mallon and Mark Durkan, the MP for Foyle, have advised him to go.

Dr Hendron said: "Alasdair obviously wants to continue his work of rebuilding the party. The real question is whether he can do it in the position he is now. I support him in doing whatever he thinks is best for the party. In terms of leadership, most of the work is in the Assembly and it is difficult to do it from Westminster. I have had discussions with him over the past couple of weeks and I would urge others to do so. People need to talk this out."

There seemed to be a suggestion here that he could be given some organisational role.

Dolores Kelly, the party deputy leader, is believed to have told Dr McDonnell his leadership was in question at the SDLP group meeting last Monday. Another MLA told him the election results were not satisfactory. Another two, Alex Attwood and John Dallat, had been expected to make trenchant points, but were absent.

It will come up today at an SDLP executive meeting when Dr McDonnell will be urged to give up his Assembly seat and find a replacement by August.

One very senior party figure said: "These meetings are very awkward but Alasdair prides himself on having a hide like a rhinoceros. That can be a good quality, but just now Alasdair's refusal to budge is dragging all of us down."


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Five front runners for the job

Conall McDevitt

Mr McDevitt is the best leader the SDLP never had, the king across the sea in Jacobite parlance.

He resigned from politics over a minor scandal in which he admitted paying his wife's company for consultancy work without declaring an interest.

Most politicians would have survived it and perhaps given the money back.

Mr McDevitt is now ensconced in Hume Brophy as a senior PR consultant.

He is a Dubliner but comes from a Belfast republican family on his grandfather's side. He is regarded as being on the liberal wing of the party and was previously a member of the Irish Labour Party.

Fearghal McKinney

Mr McKinney is from the same stable as Mike Nesbitt, the UUP leader. Both are former UTV presenters and good communicators. Hailing from Enniskillen, he is married with three children.

The force is with him - he appears to be Dr McDonnell's chosen successor and has been the leader's only defender so far. He lost the 2010 Fermanagh/South Tyrone election to Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein, scoring half the SDLP's previous total. He was co-opted as an MLA in South Belfast and employed by the SDLP as a communications consultant.

He has filled in for Dr McDonnell in interviews and has acquitted himself well as health spokesman.

Claire Hanna

This is the choice of the Left - she is noticeably more liberal on issues like gay rights than the party generally and she works for an overseas development agency.

While she was only elected to the council in 2011 and won't make leader this time, she is one to watch in the Assembly. When Conall McDevitt resigned as an MLA she campaigned to be co-opted in his place and was passed over for Fearghal McKinney. Although it was decided by a vote, it left bad blood and Mr McKinney was seen as Dr McDonnell's man.

Ms Hanna is married with two children and was born in Connemara, moving to Belfast when she was three. Politics are in the blood - her mother is the former MLA Carmel Hanna and her father Eamon is a long-time party strategist.

Colum Eastwood

The contest isn't even opened but already Mr Eastwood is the favourite. He is personable and the camera likes him.

Although he lacks ministerial experience, almost everyone in the Stormont team does, he is well-known after his year as Derry's youngest mayor in 2010.

He was elected to the Assembly a year later and has had important committee posts.

These include Standards and Priviliges and Enviroment as well as the OFMDFM committee in earlier years.

He was private secretary to Alex Atwood as Minister for the Environment.

Nichola Mallon

It is too soon for her but she could be the dark horse in the future. Ms Mallon had a great year as Lord Mayor of Belfast and was a key supporter of Dr McDonnell in his leadership contest.

She has also worked as a Spad for Mark H Durkan in Environment. She is not an MLA but could be co-opted in South Belfast. She and her husband are expecting their first child this summer.

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