Belfast Telegraph

We're fair game for critics but not gratuitous insults

The SDLP has always championed reconciliation and criticism will not divert Alasdair McDonnell from delivering on this promise

In a democracy, it must be accepted by politicians that they are fair game for balanced criticism. It does not, however, mean that unbridled licence should be provided for those who wish to pursue a seemingly covert agenda under the cover of so-called 'analysis'.

The reality of modern life is that the spotlight of the media must always be focused on those in public life who fail to deliver on their responsibilities to all in our community.

However, with the power that the media exerts comes an equal responsibility to ensure that, if commentators are indulging in punditry, the least that can be expected of them is that their facts are correct.

Normally, I do not respond to criticism which lacks clarity in terms of the intellectual construct of the argument being articulated, however irrational.

However, in this instance, the criticism is so fundamentally flawed that the usual conferring of a fool's pardon would be an insult to the readership of the Belfast Telegraph.

Last week, the commentator Robin Wilson penned an opinion piece in this newspaper on the future of unionism. In the bones of the article, Mr Wilson, for some reason, felt it necessary to deviate from the issue of unionism.

Instead, he suggested that my election, with a clear majority, as leader of the SDLP represented a negative in the context of a modernisation agenda for our party.

It was nothing less than a gratuitous insult to the membership of the SDLP to infer that they lacked the ability to make a reasoned choice after the most democratic and competitive leadership campaign in the history of our party.

Even more damaging, from a personal perspective, was the clear inference by Mr Wilson that the leadership result effectively represented the election of an individual who was both sectarian and lacking the ability to pursue a social democratic policy strategy.

In the context of reconciliation and the building of mutual tolerance and respect for all across the social and community spectrum, my total commitment can withstand any challenge to the contrary.

Equally, my establishment of a social justice network built around a core of cross-denominational churches has acted as a template to place social justice at the heart of government policy in Northern Ireland.

Tackling educational underachievement - particularly in loyalist working-class areas - has been one of the primary objectives of my open-door constituency service.

The consistent increase in my vote during a series of elections is testimony to the quality of the everyday help on social issues provided by the SDLP team in South Belfast.

It is a huge privilege to serve the community in what is the most culturally diverse constituency in Northern Ireland.

Whether helping to secure a new church building for the Methodist community on the Lisburn Road, or working at Westminster to help stricken savers in the Presbyterian Mutual Society, the challenge of delivery for the community is one that I will never shirk from.

It is sad, however, that as a direct result of the unfounded cheap shot taken at my record that I have to refer to specific issues based around religious labels.

There is no quick-fix panacea for political change in Northern Ireland and to advocate otherwise is to do a huge disservice to all our community.

The SDLP has always been the champion of reconciliation. Under my leadership, the SDLP will continue to strive to deliver a just, prosperous and reconciled society.

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