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SDLP must now display political courage at Stormont or fade into irrelevance

Not for the first time in its 45-year history the SDLP is riven by internal dissension. A good election could see leader Colum Eastwood steady the ship, but formal Opposition remains the elephant in the room. Suzanne Breen reports.

Published 20/04/2016

SDLP leader Colm Eastwood
SDLP leader Colm Eastwood
Daniel McCrossan

Slanging matches, stormy showdowns and mass resignations - all carried out in full public view. This is not how we assume the moderate, mild-mannered SDLP does business. If its members ever do fall out we expect such disagreements to be private, polite affairs. But the feud gripping West Tyrone is as vicious and ugly as they come.

Indeed, the situation reportedly reached boiling-point, and almost violence, at one heated meeting. "It was so bad that people feared for their own safety," claimed Strabane councillor Patsy Kelly - one of three SDLP councillors who has resigned. A total of 25 people, including senior local party officials, have now stepped down.

These are not the headlines Colum Eastwood wants his party to be making as the Assembly election approaches. When he became party leader five months ago the clock was at 10 to midnight for the SDLP. Eastwood knows how much he has to achieve in a very short time.

The party is under pressure to hold five Stormont seats. The greatest risk appears to be in Upper Bann and Foyle. West, North and even South Belfast could also be tight. Yet gains are possible in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and Strangford. If the SDLP emerges from the election retaining 14 seats, wherever they may be, Eastwood can claim success, although obviously a loss on his home turf in Foyle would hurt.

While it's hard to recognise any substantial change that the new leader has made to policy - I still haven't a clue what "progressive nationalism" actually means - the style has altered dramatically and the SDLP, in the media eye anyway, is back at the races.

The toxic divisions in West Tyrone follow the party's decision to run 27-year-old Daniel McCrossan as the sole candidate there. The rebels were disappointed that local councillor Josephine Deehan wasn't added to the ticket. They're lamenting the rise of "career politicians" - allegedly more interested in self-advancement than "the daily struggles of ordinary people".

Calling themselves "independent social democrats", they are contesting the election and talking about forming a new party. If they're foolish enough to do so, they are doomed. The grievances of a handful of individuals in one constituency, whether justified or not, don't provide the basis on which a new political force in Northern Ireland can be built.

When Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin - far more substantial figures than any of those involved in this dispute - left the SDLP nobody walked with them. Daniel McCrossan has certainly rubbed up some senior local party members the wrong way. Allegations of over-ambition and arrogance have been made. But it could be argued these are the very qualities which a party facing electoral oblivion actually need.

Let's face it, the SDLP in West Tyrone was hardly thriving before McCrossan arrived on the scene. He was mightily impressive in a UTV debate last week on young people's disengagement from politics. He has the confidence, capability and swagger that the SDLP requires. More than two decades younger than John O'Dowd - his nationalist rival across the UTV table - he totally outperformed the seasoned Shinner and made him look tired and trite.

The SDLP has barely more than a quota in the constituency and McCrossan is clearly MLA material. He has also proved himself at the polls, increasing the party's vote in last year's Westminster election in contrast to the decline in fortunes it experienced elsewhere. Indeed, GAA star Justin McNulty, who was hailed as the SDLP's great saviour in Newry and Armagh and had numerous party grandees canvassing for him, managed to put the vote up by only 0.7% last May, whereas McCrossan secured an almost 3% rise.

Yet the SDLP can be legitimately challenged for not living up to its name. Sometimes the "labour" bit seems very lost. And a party opposed to abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest can't call itself progressive.

The SDLP may be affiliated to the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists, but all too often it resembles a conservative, Catholic outfit.

That's certainly the view of the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee (NILRC), which is running eight candidates here next month. It has been formed by some local Labour Party members frustrated that their National Executive Committee in Britain opposes contesting elections across the Irish Sea.

Journalist and author Kathy Johnston, who is standing for the NILRC in North Antrim, dismisses any suggestion that the SDLP is Labour's "sister party". She says some SDLP members are "at best still equivocal on gay rights issues" and the party's position on abortion is "abysmal".

The Labour Party in Northern Ireland has nationalists and unionists in its ranks and would designate as 'Other' at Stormont. "Personally, I'd vote for a united Ireland in a referendum," Johnston said. "But others in the party are unionist. Our membership reflects the Northern Ireland population as a whole, whereas the SDLP is purely nationalist."

She identifies other big differences too. "We have been out this week with workers on the picket line at Sean Graham bookmaker's in Belfast. You wouldn't come across many SDLP members on a picket line. They're more likely to be found collecting at the church gates," she said.

Despite its growing army of energetic activists - 1,200 members and 600 activists, most of whom have joined up since Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign - the SDLP is hardly quaking in its boots at the electoral challenge posed by local Labour Party enthusiasts.

Those critics who accuse the SDLP of betraying its traditional roots are wrong, because, from the very beginning, the party was a broad church. When founder member Austin Currie moved into southern politics in 1989 it was to join the highly conservative and pro-establishment Fine Gael.

During the conflict the SDLP succeeded simply by having clean hands. "We're not Sinn Fein" was enough to ensure it stayed top dog within nationalism.

The party has been far too slow in awakening from its smug sense of entitlement.

If it is to survive and prosper now, the SDLP must be brave and bold. I think that involves going into Opposition in the Assembly, as opposed to just sniping at Sinn Fein from within the Stormont clique.

Belfast Telegraph

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