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It's Young Turk versus old guard as SDLP searches its soul

By Liam Clarke

Published 12/11/2015

Dr Alasdair McDonnell (pictured) faces a challenge to his SDLP leadership from Colum Eastwood
Dr Alasdair McDonnell (pictured) faces a challenge to his SDLP leadership from Colum Eastwood

There are growing rumours in SDLP ranks that the party may "cling to nurse for fear of something worse" when they elect their leader on Saturday.

The contenders are Dr Alasdair McDonnell, sitting leader and renowned political bruiser, who takes the role of nurse, and Colum Eastwood, just over four years an MLA, but seen as a rising star.

Unless someone pulls out, this will be a unique event, because it will be the first time that a sitting SDLP leader has been challenged.

When Gerry Fitt was succeeded by John Hume, Mr Fitt had already resigned. How much will the incumbency effect have on the contest?

It is not that Dr McDonnell is particularly popular with the grassroots. All the signs are of a party deeply splintered.

For instance, at last year's conference, we asked 50 delegates (out of, perhaps, 300) if he should lead it into next year's Assembly election, and it split three ways: 36% said he should, while 32% felt he shouldn't and the remainder didn't know. That is low, and a criticism often mentioned was shooting from the hip in interviews.

However, Dr McDonnell is an experienced political operator, with a thick enough hide to push changes through.

Mr Eastwood has experience working for Alex Attwood when Mr Attwood was a minister and he has been on the OFMDFM committee at Stormont.

He was also the youngest-ever mayor of Derry at the age of 27 and has clear potential.

If he takes charge on Saturday, he is expected to be a little greener and a little more Left-wing than Dr McDonnell.

He has attracted criticism for carrying the coffin at the funeral of a friend, which included paramilitary trappings, and he has been very active on the Bloody Sunday issue.

Dr McDonnell is halfway through a programme to modernise the party and he will be expected to ask for time to complete that.

Whoever is leader, they will face big challenges. In spite of keeping three MPs, the SDLP vote has been creeping downwards and the immediate test will be next May's Assembly elections.

If the number of seats and ministries is reduced, the party could be bounced off the Executive.

It must decide whether it wants to enter Opposition voluntarily, as the UUP has done.

Here it will be under heavy pressure from the Irish government to sign up to and support any deal that emerges from the current talks.

The new leader must decide whether he has more to gain by leaving the Executive to harry Sinn Fein in government.

Dolores Kelly, the deputy leader, strongly advocates this course and she backs Mr Eastwood.

If he wins and enters Opposition, it will probably be over a finance Bill; for instance, SDLP ministers have failed to support the Budget in the past, an issue over which resignation would be normal in other jurisdictions.

Dr McDonnell told last year's conference that he was arguing for a "properly funded formal Opposition" at Stormont.

He added: "In the meantime, if other parties don't get to grips with their responsibilities and we can't settle on an agreed way forward, then we will reserve the right to operate from a position of constructive Opposition."

Some in the party interpret this as meaning oppose specific Bills, but remain on the Executive - unless there is proper funding and support for Opposition parties. He may clarify that this year.

Another challenge comes from the south. Fianna Fail intends standing here, starting with the 2019 local government elections.

The last time the southern party made those sorts of noises was in 2007 and then Dr McDonnell said the two parties might form closer links.

Irish Labour has also passed a motion to seek co-operation with UK Labour to stand in elections here.

If either of those plans come off, the SDLP will have to react very quickly to preserve its position, particularly if the size of Stormont is reduced as a result of the current talks.

Belfast Telegraph

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