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SDLP must change to survive

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 29/09/2015

Alasdair McDonnell
Alasdair McDonnell

It is no surprise that the challenger to Alasdair McDonnell for leadership of the SDLP should come from Londonderry, one of the party's few remaining power bases. But Colum Eastwood is no John Hume or even Mark Durkan, the two former party leaders from that city.

Neither of those men would have made the mistake that Mr Eastwood made when he shouldered the coffin at the funeral of a former INLA man, which was accompanied by a paramilitary display, three years ago in the city.

The deceased was a friend of Mr Eastwood, and he was fully entitled to pay his respects, but he should have maintained a lower profile given the paramilitary elements at the funeral. It laid him open to criticism from political opponents and gave a misleading interpretation of his attitude to violence.

However, there are many, both inside and outside the SDLP, who will agree with his vision that the party needs a new generation of leaders. But it would be unwise to write off Dr McDonnell, who is a formidable organiser and who has taken and held the South Belfast Westminster seat - no mean achievement, even given the area's changing demographics.

Of course, Dr McDonnell did not help himself with his recent jibe that the DUP does "not want a Taig about the place".

This is not the sort of comment designed to progress relationships or to cast the SDLP as a party seeking a new shared dispensation in Northern Ireland.

Mr Eastwood's problem seems to be that he wants to plough the same furrow as Sinn Fein in stressing the SDLP's desire to see a united Ireland and its green credentials. That will always make it a Sinn Fein-lite party without either the financial or human resources to challenge the republicans.

What it needs to do is go back to its founding social and democratic principles and find issues of everyday politics on which to fight and debate. That is where the party is more likely to put clear water between itself and Sinn Fein.

Instead, it has been blundering about, most recently rejecting the advice of Enda Kenny to abstain on the vote to adjourn Stormont. It is a party without a real identity, and there is a danger that some of its supporters could vote for Sinn Fein in the next Assembly elections if they sense that a republican could become First Minister. That would make the SDLP even more irrelevant. Maybe this leadership challenge is the wake-up call the party needs.

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