Belfast Telegraph

SDLP will face disaster if party leader Alasdair McDonnell steps down

By Liam Clarke

The SDLP conference isn't until November, but there are already rumours that Dr Alasdair McDonnell, the party leader, may step down and attempt to choose his successor. These rumours surfaced most recently at the Labour Party conference.

Dr McDonnell is one of the big beasts of Northern Ireland politics and is absolutely essential to the party as candidate for his Westminster seat in South Belfast. Big Al, as some members refer to him, has more or less defied gravity by attracting cross-community support and hanging onto the seat against all comers.

In 2005, he became the first nationalist to hold South Belfast, picking it up on a split unionist vote after Martin Smyth of the UUP stepped aside. Since then, he has proved a popular MP and a good fit for the seat.

This time, he may face a single unionist candidate, so it would be a bold move for the SDLP to replace or undermine him in any way.

After next year, restrictions on "double jobbing" will prevent politicians holding seats in Westminster and Stormont at the same time. It would be hard, but not impossible, to lead the party from Westminster. If Dr McDonnell resigns his Stormont seat, the party can co-opt a replacement. But if he doesn't contest Westminster, it would be an uphill battle for his replacement.

Another factor is the poor election result the SDLP had in local government and Europe this year, arguably its worst since 1974. Some insiders believe that, on that basis, they could lose three or even four seats if there were a snap Assembly election.

Ever since John Hume, the SDLP has been fairly ruthless with its leaders. Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan were both pushed for failing to halt the party's long-term decline. Dr McDonnell appeared to stabilise it for a while, but now questions are being asked again.

A leadership heave has been considered, but is unlikely because possible contenders don't want to destabilise the party in the run-up to next May's Westminster election. They need to keep their three seats, including Dr McDonnell's, or their prestige and funding will suffer.

So, it is largely up to Big Al. But at 65, he has a young family of four. He has also stepped aside from his medical practice and often looks tired. It must be tempting to devote himself full-time to Westminster and family life.

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