Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Why SDLP needs new young voice at the helm

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie is to stand down

The close of nominations for the SDLP leadership tomorrow evening may usher in the most crucial period in the party's history. Despite a considerable branch structure, some talented politicians and a proud history the party shows signs of terminal decline.

In medical terms it is a chronic, not an acute condition.

The patient isn't going to die in the morning but things will get worse unless there are radical changes in lifestyle and habits. Nicholas Whyte's projections on the new boundary changes show the direction of travel.

He sees the SDLP losing two seats in the next Assembly election, but still retaining its single ministry.

The best the party can hope for on current trends is a slow decline, but Sinn Fein will want to turn any dignified retreat into a rout.

The biggest danger for the SDLP is that it will accuse Sinn Fein of stealing its clothes and take comfort from past glories. Party sources say there was a sense of sliding into retirement at a meeting in the Canal Court hotel in Newry last Saturday.

It was addressed by Seamus Mallon and Sean Farren, two of its elder statesmen who have a combined age of 147.

That generation of leadership produced many of the ideas which shaped the peace process, but in politics eaten bread is soon forgotten.

In elections it is current concerns that predominate and the SDLP risks being slowly crushed out by Sinn Fein on the one hand and a resurgent Alliance Party on the other.

On the plus side the SDLP has until 2015 before it faces a Stormont election.

There has never been a better time to try something new and there is a strong argument for skipping a generation for either the leader or deputy leader, though not both.

Dubliner Conall McDevitt, the so called "mouth from the south", is at 39 the obvious choice for a younger leader.

He has been only a few months in the Assembly but he has been Special Adviser to Brid Rodgers when she was a minister and he had been director of communications so he knows the ropes.

Sources say more than the requisite five branches have nominated him.

If he stands and wins then someone like Dolores Kelly from Lurgan, on the greener wing of the party, could provide gender balance and some experience as his deputy. Patsy McGlone, 52, is still a relatively young man and is a very credible leader.

Dr Alasdair McDonnell is 62 but he has a dynamic feel to him and has the courage to shake things up.

Either of these two, or Alex Attwood with his undoubted ability and ministerial experience, would be best served a younger deputy, perhaps Colum Eastwood, 28, from Londonderry.

After Friday there will be horse trading to see who will stand.

The party faithful need to ensure they choose a balanced, effective ticket at this critical time.

A new leader will need to take radical, risky steps to have any chance of turning things around.

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