Belfast Telegraph

Alasdair McDonnell's leading role should be to keep South Belfast

By Liam Clarke

Dr Alasdair McDonnell should not have tried to hang on as SDLP leader after he retained his South Belfast Westminster seat.

It was traditionally a unionist seat until he won it in 2005. He has held it in three elections since, with some cross-community support.

That is what the SDLP needs him to do, hold South Belfast, and he is best placed to do so.

Seamus Murphy from South Armagh, one of Dr McDonnell's longest standing supporters, told me how they met as students in Dublin. There, they organised buses to take students to civil rights marches in the north.

That is a long commitment and there were tears in the old leader's eyes as he wished Colum Eastwood well.

The new leader faces both opportunities and dangers. The danger is that he could lose five seats in May, as an internal party study concluded. It has been lucky in recent elections to keep its seats score up and, like a penny falls machine in an amusement arcade, large parts of their Stormont resources could spill over the edge without much of a push.

Dr McDonnell has done some solid organisational work which he can build on with the help of his deputy Fearghal McKinney. The outgoing leader pointed out that 40% of the 87 SDLP councillors elected last year were new.

Mr Eastwood also has the advantage of a convincing victory, 172 votes to Dr McDonnell's 133.

On top of that, several members of the SDLP's founding members backed Mr Eastwood publicly. It was like one generation of leadership passing the baton to another.

So he is in a good position to fight back, and he will consider opposition if the big parties won't take enough account of the SDLP in drawing up budgets and programmes for government.

That is the policy advocated by Alex Attwood, the SDLP's lead negotiator in the ongoing talks. A former minister, he is seen as a one of the SDLP's leading tactical thinkers, though his own electoral position is weak.

Mr Eastwood has a lot of backing right across the piste.

At the end of the day though, it is lonely at the top. After he has taken all the advice he can get he finally has to be his own man - because he will be the one who carries the can if things go wrong.

That is leadership and it's a heavy burden at 32.

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