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SDLP must play the generation game if it wants to reinvent itself

Is Martin's expected return home the moment the SDLP grows some cojones and finally presses the eject button? It is now apparent that, barring the biggest political upset in Irish history, the temporarily ex-deputy First Minister won't be occupying Phoenix Park next Friday.

If Martin McGuinness fails to succeed Mary McAleese as Irish president, the plan seems to be that he takes up his position once more beside Peter Robinson at Stormont.

In turn, that moment may be the last opportunity this side of the next Assembly election for the SDLP to exit the Executive... or at least, that is, until the party picks a new leader.

Alex Attwood indicated this week that he wants to begin a debate within the SDLP about it remaining inside the five-party power-sharing coalition.

Attwood's suggestion is the most radical so far from any of the four candidates who want to succeed Margaret Ritchie (below right) after the SDLP conference in November.

But why wait for an internal round of soul-searching? Why not instead offer the SDLP delegates - and the voters - a clean break with the past?

To make such a daring move requires a subtle shift in the political strategy the SDLP has pursued since John Hume began his ground-breaking dialogue with Gerry Adams in the late 1980s.

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During this period, the SDLP emphasised (correctly, as history has proven) the need for all-party talks, of inclusiveness, of taking risks to bring your old adversaries in from the cold.

This approach helped deliver the ceasefire, although the Hume effect is often exaggerated by peace process commentators.

The problem for this strategy was that, just like the IRA conflict before it, it had gone on for far too long. Eventually, the SDLP became so wedded to inclusive politics that their spokesmen became Sinn Fein's advertising agents, much to detriment of their own party.

Every time you saw, or heard, a middle-aged (or older) SDLP politician on television or radio in the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement, during the arguments over decommissioning and even up to St Andrews, they appeared to spend most of their time defending Sinn Fein against various unionist charges.

The SDLP had, in effect, lost the ability to look after itself and the consequences, as a result, were fatal. The party long ago lost its hegemonic position within northern nationalism and, at this stage, looks unlikely to win it back.

If Conall McDevitt, who significantly doesn't turn 40 until next June, wants to mark himself out from the other three candidates vying for the leadership - Alex Attwood (52), Alasdair McDonnell (62) and Patsy McGlone (52) - he should take this on board.

The need for a large, effective, scrutinising Opposition bloc at the Assembly has been blindingly obvious for quite some time now. And the time to create that Opposition might just be now.

It appears likely that the DUP will almost pretend not to have noticed that McGuinness went away at all. To a lot of the Northern Ireland public this will be perceived as yet another cynical piece of chicanery by the two big parties.

There is still, however, a growing - and largely more youthful - section of the population beyond the SDLP's core vote that is increasingly alienated from the political process. That younger segment of the populace can only increase in direct proportion to the DUP-Sinn Fein symbiosis continuing over time.

Of course, compared to Westminster, all Northern Ireland's political leaders are an ageing lot: David Cameron is in his forties, as is the man whom he faces across the dispatch box in the House of Commons, Ed Miliband. Some of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet are barely out of their thirties, while our First and deputy First Ministers are in their sixties.

But behind the front men of the main parties at Stormont there is a well of younger, talented politicians waiting to break through.

These include the likes of the temporary deputy First Minister John O'Dowd, his Sinn Fein colleague Daithi McKay and, on the unionist benches, the likes of the DUP's Simon Hamilton.

Yet both the big two remain under the tight-fist control of men (yes, always men) who have been household names in local politics since the 1970s.

The SDLP, in particular, has historically been caricatured as being a middle-aged, middle-class party made up of people who used to teach the Shinners at school, but who were eventually outwitted by their pupils in the pursuit of power.

If the SDLP is to survive, it must eschew that public perception, skip a political generation and become more youthful and radical in its appeal. But it won't do so by offering more of the same, even if they were to elect McDevitt-the-Younger as leader.

Alex Attwood's willingness to even consider giving up his ministerial post for a seat on the Opposition benches has stolen a march on McDevitt. This means McDevitt has only one place to go if he wishes to create a unique selling-point for his party: he must commit himself on victory to taking the SDLP out of Government and into Opposition.

Then the old order within the party might change and a new generation of leaders might get the chance to forge their careers and reputations in the heat of real Parliamentary battle.

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