Belfast Telegraph

Breakaway SDLP faction mull setting up a new party

By Sean O'Driscoll

Former SDLP members are considering the establishment of a new political party after a major split in West Tyrone.

Seven more members resigned yesterday, bringing the total number of those who have left to around 25.

Three councillors have already quit the party in the past two weeks after stormy internal meetings, shouting matches and walkouts.

The seven include Frank Sweeney, the former chair of the party's constituency council.

The others are Eugene Mullan, former Strabane councillor, Barney McDermott, chair of the Derg branch, Geraldine Mullan, secretary of the Derg branch, Michael Deehan, treasurer of West Tyrone Constituency Association, Bernard McGrath, vice chair of the Mid Tyrone and Omagh branch and Margaret O'Connor, member of party executive for the Fermanagh and Omagh Council.

The resignations follow intense disagreements about which candidates to run in the upcoming Stormont elections on May 5.

The rebels say the frustration has mounted at the rise of Sinn Fein across Ireland and seeming inability of the SDLP to win back its support.

The chair of the SDLP's West Tyrone party council has also resigned, as has the chair of one of the party's largest branches and dozens of other members.

Rosemary Flanagan, the overall chair of the SDLP, also resigned over the party's inability to deal with the rift.

"We are thinking of setting up our own political party, there are discussions taking place at the moment," said Patsy Kelly, who resigned last week, along with Omagh and Fermanagh council member, Dr Josephine Deehan.

A third councillor, Joanne Donnelly, also resigned from the Omagh and Fermanagh council, pledging support for the other two councillors.

Mr Kelly said that all three had now labelled themselves 'Independent Social Democrats' but said this may evolve into a new party. "Dozens of people have resigned from the party and we are getting support from all over Northern Ireland," he said.

Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, said at the party's manifesto launch on Monday that the resignations were regrettable but would not affect the party's election strategy.

Well-placed SDLP figures confirmed there were last-minute efforts by senior party figures to head off a split.

Long-standing frustration within the constituency erupted over the decision by the SDLP to appoint a young candidate, Daniel McCrossan, as an MLA, following the resignation of his mentor, former MLA, Joe Byrne.

This was compounded when the party decided to run Mr McCrossan alone in West Tyrone in the upcoming Stormont election, rather than allowing councillor (Josephine) Deehan to also run. Both sides agree that the situation reached boiling point, and almost violence, during a very stormy constituency meeting at Joe Byrne's constituency office last year. "It was so bad that people feared for their own safety. There was a lot of shouting and our group left and set up our meeting in a supporter's premises. There is no way we could have stayed," Mr Kelly said.

Tension at that meeting erupted after the rebels tried to appoint Frank Sweeney, the chair of the SDLP West Tyrone party council, to convene the meeting.

Mainstream SDLP loyalists objected and a shouting match erupted, leading to a walkout by the rebels, both sides said.

Mr Sweeney said he and others felt a great frustration the party was not properly organised and was not attracting young people in the face of a rising Sinn Fein.

He said: "Of course there is frustration over our response to Sinn Fein. Unless we have a proper structure, we can't fight back properly."

Mr Byrne added: "People are free to make their own decisions. I'm just disappointed that it has come to this."

Belfast Telegraph


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