Dour McDonnell's more of a liability than he is a leader
When is the SDLP going to break out of its great-aunt's parlour, circa 1955, and join the rest of us in the 21st century? The first step towards embracing modernity would be to ditch their bumbling liability of a leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell. With his fusty, ultra-conservative nationalism, he's a throwback to Ireland in the Fifties: the grim propriety of lace doilies and anti-macassars, the stifling odour of sanctity.
Dr McDonnell has never had the natural gravitas and authority of a party leader. Instead, he has the manner of a paternalistic, old-fashioned GP - no surprises there, since that's exactly what he is - given to making jowly, ponderous pronouncements and expecting everyone else to defer to his superior knowledge while he writes out the prescription. He can be rather graceless, too - not by any means an unusual failing in Ulster politics - but sometimes it can get a bit embarrassing.
He started as he meant to go on in 2011, during his first leader's address to the party, interrupting himself to give off petulantly about the brightness of the spotlights trained on him. Last week he was at it again during his victory speech in South Belfast - he won, yes, but with the lowest ever share of the vote by a successful MP anywhere in the UK; 75% of the constituency voted against him - when he started cavilling about the slowness of the count. It does not give the impression of an inspired, charismatic leader with his eyes on a grand political vision. It gives the impression of a grumpy, fretful old man who's stayed up long past his bedtime. And that's a big part of the difficulty here.
I mean, what is the SDLP? What does it actually stand for, other than being a middle-class party that's not Sinn Fein? I really don't know or care any more. An especially telling episode happened earlier this year when Dr McDonnell made those ludicrous remarks about abortion and lethal foetal abnormality.
As you'll recall, he told the BBC that "the SDLP is unequivocally opposed to abortion, even in those particular circumstances, because, basically, the predictions in those circumstances are never accurate. Nobody can predict that a foetus is not viable and that's the problem". He then went further, claiming that as a GP he had "seen situations where termination or an abortion was recommended to somebody because a foetus that had this, that or the other thing, and that foetus grew up to be a perfectly normal child."
It took the formidable Samina Dornan, a senior consultant who specialises in foetal medicine at the Royal Victoria Hospital, to put him straight. Declaring that she found it amazing that Dr McDonnell, both as a doctor and an MP, was coming out with statements like this, Dr Dornan said that his comments undermined consultants' "professional integrity" and told the world that they couldn't do their job.
The worst thing was that there was not a peep of dissent - or if there was one it must have been as faint as the call of the corncrake - from within his own party. McDonnell burbled out this egregious nonsense and the SDLP just took it. This goes beyond courtesy and party discipline to become outright cowardice.
I know that there are plenty of progressive, pro-choice representatives in the SDLP because I've spoken to them and they've told me so. Polls confirm that this is the case. Why did not one of them feel able to speak up and take issue with McDonnell's stance?
The DUP and Sinn Fein are well known for their ruthless control of the ranks, but when Jim Wells linked gay parents with child abuse, at least Pam Cameron, the DUP South Antrim MLA, publicly disassociated herself from his comments.
Likewise, when Gerry Kelly put out his sectarian election leaflet a couple of otherwise loyal Shinners - Seán Fearon and Joseph Donaghy - came out and said it was an absolute disgrace. Yet when Alasdair McDonnell refused to countenance the most minimal changes in our archaic abortion laws, even in the dreadful case of fatal foetal abnormality, on the dubious grounds that doctors don't know what they're doing, the SDLP accepted it without a murmur.
In a country in love with the assumed wisdom of old men, Dr McDonnell has hung on far longer than he could have done anywhere else. The SDLP must screw up its courage, unlock the parlour door, and say it's time to change.