Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness attending sports games has been blasted as “only a charade” by SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell.
The First Minister going to GAA matches and the Deputy First Minister attending Linfield’s Windsor Park could even serve as a barrier to “meaningful” reconciliation, he told his party’s annual conference.
“Enough gestures and photo calls at sporting events from Peter and Martin — unless those are backed up with genuine moves towards long term reconciliation — they are viewed as cynical and serve as a barrier to meaningful reconciliation between the people of the north,” he said.
A chorus of condemnation of the two main Stormont parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, predictably dominated the gathering in Armagh — reduced for the first time from three days to two.
Dr McDonnell said if Sinn Fein is serious about a process of truth and reconciliation, they should start with telling the truth.
And he accused DUP leader Robinson of using “honeyed” words about moving away from orange-and-green politics to try to convince voters into thinking a return to unionist domination is in their best interests.
“That’s just plain old sectarianism with a fresh lick of paint on it,” he said.
But the Dr McDonnell also spoke of a “new phase” in which his party could pro-actively reach out to show unionists not just that their rights are respected but that “we will fight for them and their families”.
It was a less than barnstorming performance — with no significant new themes emerging.
Former leader Margaret Ritchie (below) said if Mr Robinson really wanted to demonstrate he is “cool with Catholics” he should sack Nelson McCausland.
The DUP Minister faced down a censure motion after defending the right to non-violent civic protest against Parades Commissions determinations.
Ms Ritchie warned the “fake friendship” between the DUP and Sinn Fein would gradually lead to a return of one-party rule and unionist domination.
In the key debate on political motions on Saturday, delegates in effect rejected a proposal that future Assembly structures should include an opposition, which deputy leader Dolores Kelly suggested the party should consider.
The motion collapsed when delegates supported a policy paper, called Protecting the Good Friday Agreement, instead.
South Belfast MLA Conall McDevitt, speaking in favour of the main motion, said the party needed to ask whether the system at Stormont was living up to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement or whether recent exchanges between Sinn Fein and the DUP are a “sham fight masking a cosy consensus.”
Closer links with Sinn Fein strongly opposed
By Liam Clarke
There is no appetite for cooperation with Sinn Fein among SDLP members.
That is the one point that emerges with great clarity from the Belfast Telegraph’s poll of delegates at the SDLP conference on Saturday.
We surveyed 50 members of the nationalist party at its annual conference on a variety of issues.
Our first question was whether the SDLP and Sinn Fein should agree a single candidate in marginal Westminster seats where they face a single unionist unity candidate.
Only 4% were in favour with 94% actively opposed. This is in marked contrast to the situation within unionism where, in a similar survey, we found that 38% of Ulster Unionist delegates would like to merge with the DUP.
The question of unionist and nationalist unity candidates may arise soon in Mid Ulster where Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein has said he will resign his Westminster seat to concentrate on the Assembly. Many unionists believe that a single candidate could take the seat against two nationalists.
Asked whether they would like closer links with Sinn Fein, only 10% answered yes.
Nearly seven out of those surveyed (68%) believed that Dr Alasdair McDonnell should lead them into the next Assembly election.
The survey of 50 SDLP members attending the party’s annual conference was carried out on Saturday morning in association with LucidTalk Polling. The sample was about a quarter of conference attendees. Polling was conducted by Mary Therese Toal and Emma Gallen, both journalism students at Belfast Metropolitan College.
Going into opposition remains a real option
By Liam Clarke
One big idea came out of the SDLP annual conference — going into opposition.
There were other themes, for instance closer co-operation with British Labour and the parties in the Republic, but opposition was the one which caught the headlines.
The problem is that it wasn’t in the leader’s speech. Last year Dr Alasdair McDonnell’s speech made headlines for the wrong reasons. Through no fault of his own, he was dazzled by lights reflecting off his autocue.This year the problem was journalists struggled for ‘a line’, or central message to report.
The idea that the SDLP would be a watchdog within the Executive was one that most came up with, but it wasn’t echoed by several party leaders.
“The watchdog should be let off the leash” countered MLA Mark H Durkan, echoing calls by Dolores Kelly, the deputy leader, that the party should start considering withdrawing from the Executive altogether.
“We are being tarnished by the failures and behaviours of this DUP/Sinn Fein Executive,” Ms Kelly declared.
“We might lose a few jobs by leaving Government — but we could lose our soul if we go on in this Executive indefinitely.”
She got a lot of support. In an unscripted speech Alex Atwood, the SDLP’s sole minister, commended the Belfast Telegraph for reporting that he too wanted a dialogue on opposition.
Ex-leader Margaret Ritchie told me: “Opposition is something that we need to consider.
“I am not saying that we walk out of government straight away but, as Alex said this morning, we need it as a potential option,” she added.
By yesterday, Dr McDonnell, who had dismissed the idea, was saying the party would consider it. Our survey shows these are ideas which resonate with activists.