Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

McDevitt could carry on the good doctor's work

Alasdair McDonnell has brought stability to the SDLP and could hand over his Stormont seat to Claire Hanna
Alasdair McDonnell has brought stability to the SDLP and could hand over his Stormont seat to Claire Hanna

Has Alasdair McDonnell halted the SDLP's long-term decline and will he stand aside by 2015? The answer looks like 'yes' to both questions.

Dr McDonnell had a faltering start as leader. Wikileak predictions that he would perform 'like a bull in a china shop' were ringing in his ears when he made a poor impression at party conference after being elected leader.

The script was strong, but went unnoticed because the house lights blinded him and he couldn't read the autocue.

TV audiences watched him appealing for the lights to be turned down and, by the time he got into his stride, the coverage had ended.

Now things look better. Recent polls, including our own LucidTalk one before Christmas, show the SDLP gaining marginally on Sinn Fein. Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, even accuses republicans of letting the SDLP set the pace for them.

The larger party may not be in fear of its life just yet, but it is certainly, as Mr Robinson said, looking over its shoulder at the 'stoops', as republicans like to refer to Dr McDonnell's party.

He dissuaded the UK Labour Party from contesting elections here, though he twice said it would be okay in single transferable vote elections.

Co-operating with Labour at Westminster gives the SDLP a reach and clout which the abstentionist Sinn Fein lacks.

He is also building links with all the main southern parties. He is meeting the Taoiseach today and next Thursday there will be an all-bells-and-whistles event for supporters at Dublin's Mansion House. The SDLP is gaining credibility as a party with clout on cross-border issues.

This all begs the question of what is the SDLP there for? Keeping Sinn Fein on the hop has involved stressing the party's nationalist credentials at every opportunity.

In a recent discussion on BBC's The View, Alex Attwood, its minister, referred to himself constantly as a constitutional nationalist, without mentioning either social democracy, or labour.

The party has avoided being outflanked by republicans on green issues. It generally goes 'me, too' on demands for the release of dissident prisoners and voted with Sinn Fein to rename a Newry play-park after a hunger striker and pushed for no flag-flying at Belfast City Hall.

It only accepted the compromise of designated days at the 11th hour after all else failed. That is not exactly a distinctive political role, never mind the post-nationalist organisation John Hume envisaged.

But perhaps halting the slide is legacy enough for Dr McDonnell, now nearly 63, to hand on to a successor. If the draft Northern Ireland Bill is implemented, he must then choose between Stormont and Westminster. He is expected to stick with his South Belfast Westminster seat, where another candidate could lose to the unionists.

That would mean co-opting someone else into the Stormont seat. Claire Hanna looks like a natural.

It would be strange for a Northern Ireland party to be led from Westminster, not Stormont, so the hunt would be on for a successor.

Then someone else – perhaps Conall McDevitt – could build on Dr McDonnell's legacy to carve out a more distinctive role for the party.

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