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SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell fails to get endorsement from rank-and-file party activists - poll

By Liam Clarke

Published 17/11/2014

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell addressing the party conference at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Belfast on Saturday
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell addressing the party conference at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in Belfast on Saturday
Dr Alasdair McDonnell with his wife Olivia
The audience applauds as Dr Alasdair McDonnell makes his way to the stage

Only just over a third of SDLP activists believe the current party leader should take them into the next Assembly election, a snapshot survey has suggested.

On the question of Irish unity, just 54% told the Belfast Telegraph at the party's annual conference they would vote Yes in a referendum - a good indication that the Union is safe for the time being.

In a party with a predominantly Catholic membership, activists also showed themselves to be at odds with the church on issues such as abortion and its influence on education.

Fifty delegates answered our questions out of a total of around 250 attending the weekend conference.

Their responses suggested there is a mood for changing both policies and the party leader.

Only 36% said Dr Alasdair McDonnell should lead the SDLP into the next Assembly election - very low for a party leader.

The total for Dr McDonnell may have been higher if we had asked about the General Election next May. However, 32% thought he definitely should not lead the party in 2016 and 32% didn't know.

Other surprising findings included that most delegates surveyed (54%) favoured a relaxation of Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws.

The SDLP describes itself as a pro-life party and members are not allowed to vote in favour of more permissive legislation.

Our current abortion law, which dates back to 1861, only allows a termination where a woman's life is in danger or there is a serious and long-term risk to her health.

Delegates also expressed a high degree of opposition to the churches' role in Northern Ireland's education system - something strongly at odds with the views of most churches, especially the Catholic one.

The conference also passed a motion backing integrated education.

On the question of Irish unity less than half (42%) of those questioned wanted a referendum on the issue, with 50% against.

Yet if a referendum was held on the issue under the Good Friday Agreement most members of the nationalist party (54%) would vote for it.

Some said it was too soon to hold a referendum but the message appears to be that enough people from a nationalist background would probably vote in favour of the status quo to ensure its retention. A clear majority of 56% favoured flying the Union flag on designated days in nationalist as well as unionist councils. Only 32% opposed the idea while 12% expressed no opinion.

And 70% of those questioned at the SDLP conference told the Belfast Telegraph that they favoured entering opposition by the end of 2017. The current arrangements at Stormont under the Good Friday Agreement ensure there is a forced coalition. While there is a reluctance by some to change the Agreement, others in the SDLP believe they could be more effective in opposition for a period.

Dr McDonnell caught the mood of delegates over his position on electoral pacts with Sinn Fein to save key nationalist seats. He was strongly against it and so were 82% of delegates we spoke to, with only 16% in favour.

LucidTalk, our polling partner, carried out a ballot on the issue, which largely mirrored this result. Of those, 89% of the 137 delegates who took part were opposed to pacts.

Of the 29 people who did want a pact, 22 felt Fermanagh South Tyrone, held by Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew, was the most important constituency to secure.

The 50 SDLP delegates were also asked to say which leaders and politicians they trusted - and there was bad news for the First Minister.

Peter Robinson scored lowest, with not a single activist saying they trusted him, but Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was not far in front on 4% - even behind David McNarry on 8%.

Alliance leader David Ford and independent unionist John McCallister scored highest at 64%, while Green Party leader Steven Agnew scored a healthy 58%.

The PSNI got a middling approval rating of 22%, down from 42% last year.

New Chief Constable George Hamilton was trusted by 42% of those surveyed - but distrusted by 48%.

How the SDLP party members responded to our survey

Q: Should all councils, nationalist as well as unionist, fly the Union flag on designated days (only) as happens in Belfast?

Yes 56%

No 32%

No opinion 12%

Q: Do you think Northern Ireland should hold a referendum on whether to stay in the UK or join the Irish Republic?

Yes 42%

No 50%

No opinion 8%

Q: Should Dr Alasdair McDonnell lead the SDLP into the 2016 Assembly election?

Yes 36%

No 32%

No opinion 32%

Q: How on a scale of 1-5, with 1 best and 5 worst, would you rate the performance of the PSNI?

1 8%

2 34%

3 38%

416%

5 4%

Q: Should the SDLP consider supporting joint nationalist candidates in Westminster seats where unionists are forming electoral pacts?

Yes 16%

No 82%

No opinion 2%

Q: Should NI's abortion laws be (Y) relaxed to make it easier to obtain an abortion here, (N) made more restrictive or (O) kept as they are.

Yes 54%

No 12%

O 34%

Q: If a referendum on Irish unity were held under the Good Friday Agreement would you vote - Yes for unity or No for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK?

Yes 54%

No 46%

Q The next Assembly election is in 2016. Would you like to see the SDLP entering opposition either before or during 2017?

Yes 70%

No 18%

No opinion 12%

Q: Thinking of schools, should the churches have less role in the running of our education system?

Yes 68%

No 16%

No opinion 16%

Q: Do you trust Peter Robinson?

Yes 0%

No 88%

No opinion 12%

Martin McGuinness?

Yes 4%

No 88%

No opinion 8%

Mike Nesbitt?

Yes 16%

No 56%

No opinion 28%

David Ford?

Yes 64%

No 16%

No opinion 20%

Jim Allister?

Yes 28%

No 58%

No opinion 14%

Theresa Villiers?

Yes 28%

No 60%

No opinion 12%

George Hamilton?

Yes 42%

No 10%

No opinion 48%

Basil McCrea?

Yes 34%

No 62%

No opinion 4%

John McCallister?

Yes 64%

No 20%

No opinion 16%

Stephen Agnew?

Yes 58%

No 24%

No opinion 18%

David McNarry?

Yes 8%

No 74%

No opinion 18%

The survey of 50 party members was carried out on Saturday, November 15 at the SDLP conference in Belfast in association with LucidTalk polling.

Interviews were conducted by Meadhbh Brennan and Ryan Flynn, both of whom are studying Journalism at Belfast Metropolitan College.

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