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Fresher-faced SDLP needs to consider opposition role

By Henry McDonald

Published 06/01/2016

Alban Maginness feeds the swans at the Waterworks in Belfast
Alban Maginness feeds the swans at the Waterworks in Belfast

Alban Maginness' announcement that he is stepping down as an MLA at the forthcoming Assembly election comes on the heels of three other prominent SDLP veteran politicians retiring from public office.

However, their departure should not be seen as some kind of purge of the party old guard by the new power within the SDLP, its leader Colum Eastwood. There is going to be no Leninist/Corbynista style in a party based more on the power of personalities than democratic centralism.

In a sense the retirement of the North Belfast SDLP man who became Belfast's first nationalist Lord Mayor and the exit of ex-Derry mayor Pat Ramsey is more to do with generational than organisational change.

Both Maginness and Ramsey kept the SDLP torch aflame in their respective constituencies during some of the darkest days of the Troubles and some of the most perilous times for a party that appeared as if its entire existence was under threat.

Maginness saw himself and his party being eclipsed by Sinn Fein as the leading nationalist force in North Belfast. Ramsey, meanwhile, sustained physical attacks on himself and his home for supporting the new policing arrangements, although in his case he was part of a constituency organisation that bucked the trend in all other places west of the Bann, where Sinn Fein has supplanted the SDLP for nationalist primacy.

The Derry SDLP at least can point to its ongoing success at holding the Foyle Westminster seat in the face of several Sinn Fein surges in the constituency.

The real question prompted by Maginness' decision to retire is what all this entails for the SDLP's new leader. How can Eastwood make the party more relevant in an era where binary sectarian politics ensures that if the DUP are still top dogs in the unionist community then Sinn Fein is more than likely to be the number one nationalist party for the foreseeable future?

One of the absurd situations in Northern Ireland politics can be seen when the SDLP has something critical to say about the DUP-Sinn Fein axis that dominates the Stormont Executive. Whenever you read the protestations of SDLP Assembly Members or councillors over the way the DUP/Sinn Fein are allegedly carving up power in the Executive, you need to remind yourself that the rival nationalist party is still sitting down in cabinet with the parties it accuses of mismanagement.

If there is one way Eastwood can dig out a separate identity for its intra-nationalist opponents it would be to enter opposition at Stormont following May's Assembly elections. Of course, the SDLP leader cannot explicitly state in the party manifesto that it is committed to joining the opposition benches before a vote is cast. Like any party with a significant presence in any parliament, the SDLP will be aiming as high as possible to maximise its vote and cannot simply say: 'Vote for us - but not to put us into power'.

It should, however, be thinking on a more medium to long-term basis about its future after May's poll. If, as is probable, the DUP and Sinn Fein emerge again as the two main parties, then the SDLP's only sensible option is to offer itself up as a force to hold the new Executive accountable.

From Eastwood and the younger team he is assembling - think of the likes of the very able Nichola Mallon, who is front-runner to replace Maginness in North Belfast - there almost needs to be a kind of 'dog-whistle' silent message to the electorate that if we end up again with a DUP/Sinn Fein-dominated Executive then the time might be right for proper oppositional politics.

All the out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new faces within the SDLP Assembly team will be rendered irrelevant if the party continues to be wedded to the old politics of multi-party mandatory government.

Belfast Telegraph

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