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Time for the good doctor to supply remedy for party

It was meant to be his finest hour, but for Alasdair McDonnell his maiden speech as party leader became his darkest. Trouble with the lighting and autocue during a live TV broadcast led to it being dubbed one of the worst ever and it has become a textbook example of a public relations disaster.

Tomorrow, McDonnell will again take to the stage at his party's conference in Armagh; this time to deliver the most important speech of his career.

Some in the SDLP could be forgiven for hoping there is nothing to report from their annual gathering. The reality is that they must start making the headlines for all the right reasons.

Forget 'accountable government' or 'respect' - phrases and slogans bandied about by party insiders as possible conference themes - the key word for the SDLP is 'relevance'.

Recent headline-grabbers, such as the ultimately unsuccessful motion of censure against Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland and clever tactical moves on welfare reform, are not signs of momentum.

Only First Minister Peter Robinson's mischievous suggestion that Sinn Fein was paralysed in government by its fear of its nationalist rivals have hinted at political relevance.

Often one senior party member would remark that there was still a need for the SDLP, but the challenge facing the present leadership is that, if the SDLP did not exist, would anyone notice?

It is imperative McDonnell does not squander his latest opportunity in the limelight. Instead, he must reveal his vision and direction for the party and outline its role in society and in the community.

Firstly, he should ignore the people in the conference hall. The 200 or so delegates are not the SDLP's problem. There needs to be a clear message to the thousands of people at home who don't, or no longer, vote SDLP.

McDonnell was elected leader on a manifesto of organisational overhaul. He will no doubt tell the party faithful of financial targets met, branches established and members recruited.

But, in all honesty, how is the SDLP a more attractive prospect than Sinn Fein for any nationalist looking to part with their money, time, or vote? Leadership not membership will be the key to recovery.

The difference between the two parties needs to be more than their internal machinations, as McDonnell suggested in a recent interview, comparing Sinn Fein's set-up to the communist-run Soviet Union of the 1980s.

Where are the SDLP policies to boost the economy? Where are the proposals to bring about true reconciliation?

And what are the plans for the constitutional future of the island?

Is the party bold enough to re-open the door to leaving government slammed shut by McDonnell under his plans to 'share out' the ministerial cake? The SDLP has argued with consistency its opposition to the proposed reform of the welfare system, but have not been strong enough to exploit Sinn Fein's weakness.

However, their tough talk on highlighting its potential disastrous effect on the most vulnerable raises the question of why anyone would want to be part of an Executive which will ultimately administer it.

History has shown the smaller parties in the five-party coalition take all of the blame and none of the credit for Executive decisions.

Peter Robinson's platitudes aside, there remains little electoral advantage for the party to remain within the Executive.

Both Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie said that, if there was an issue big enough, they could leave government. If McDonnell is brave, welfare reform could provide the key to the exit door.

With no elections scheduled until 2014, McDonnell would have comforted himself that he had time on his hands to implement his recovery plan.

But, a year into the job, it must worry McDonnell that the most recent opinion poll showed support for his party at 9%, when traditionally such surveys tend to overstate the SDLP's popularity. And with his own approval-rating standing at 4% - the lowest of all the Northern Ireland party leaders - it would suggest McDonnell's tendency to fluff his lines in the media, such as calling for a pay-rise for MLAs, has taken its toll.

Yet the first real indicator of the party's popularity is just around the corner, where the SDLP will have to withstand a Sinn Fein onslaught in the Mid-Ulster Westminster by-election.

A heavy defeat here is inevitable.

Early selection of a European candidate is essential and would have proved a handy distraction at this conference.

On the face of it, most northern parties have their people in place, but the SDLP need to be prepared for the unexpected.

Fianna Fail still has its eyes firmly on the north and Micheal Martin has increased his pronouncements on affairs north of the border.

McDonnell should pay attention to the words of Benjamin Disraeli, whose maiden speech to the House of Commons in 1837 on Irish elections was poorly received.

As he sat down amid heckles and laughter, the future two-term prime minister remarked, "The time will come when you will hear me."

For the SDLP and Alasdair McDonnell, that time is now.