SDLP stable after McDevitt departure

©Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland -9th November  2013.
Party leader Aladair McDonnell pictured  at the Annual SDLP Conference held at Th eArmagh City Hotel.
 Mandatory Credit - Picture by Stephen Hamilton Peter Cheney finds the SDLP in a settled state but all eyes are on next May’s polls and what the results will mean for the party’s future.

The SDLP knows that next year’s European Parliament election will be a major test of its political strength but, for now, the overall mood within the party is stable and Alastair McDonnell is secure as its leader.

Conall McDevitt’s departure from politics has removed the main potential threat to the leadership. There is no indication that McDevitt was planning a ‘heave’ but he was the obvious alternative, having come a close second in the 2011 leadership poll.

In his keynote speech, McDonnell dismissed the DUP and Sinn Féin as “parties of disappointment, false promise, poor government, bad politics and no results.” He praised Mark H Durkan for blocking the Planning Bill and criticised the “unaccountable” National Crime Agency and the “savagery of the welfare cuts.”

McDonnell defined the party’s core values as “reconciliation, social justice and prosperity” and added: “Northern Ireland must work for its people, politically and economically, and be seen to work, delivering a better living for all of our people.”

As Irish nationalists, the SDLP wanted parity of esteem for Irish national symbols but supported the ‘designated days’ compromise at Belfast City Hall. He wanted to see a “sustainable comprehensive agreement” on the Haass issues with the British and Irish governments responsible for overseeing progress.

Collusion was “truly shocking but it never ever justified a single IRA atrocity.” An independent adjudicator would still be needed if local people were unable to resolve parading disputes.

McDonnell proposed a commission of healthcare experts to examine the performance of hospitals and the retention and reform of the Housing Executive. The public body was “one of the SDLP’s greatest achievements.” A meaningful “prosperity process” was also needed. The British and Irish governments had, in his view, promised a “mini-Marshall Plan” in the late 1990s but “hopes were raised and hopes were dashed.”

He contrasted Northern Ireland’s low uptake from the previous EU R&D programme with the Republic, which claimed four times its allocated share. The new Horizon 2020 programme could help to deliver a high-tech all-island economy. The local tourism sector could “ill afford” a 20 per cent VAT rate when competing against a 9 per cent rate in the Republic.

Echoing Martin Luther King, McDonnell set out a “dream” for the island: “A new Ireland taking her place proudly in a brave new world at the heart of Europe and where we are at peace with ourselves and with Britain.”

Delegates and observers who spoke to agendaNi said that the speech was long but ticked the right boxes with the party faithful. There was a sense that McDonnell would be unchallengeable if the European and local polls went well but a ‘stalking horse’ could emerge if they did not.

On the previous night, deputy leader Dolores Kelly had again called on the party to consider going into opposition. A “strategic” discussion is now taking place within the Assembly group.

In education, Sinn Féin had a “completely ridiculous ideological obsession with academic selection and an outdated class-warfare hatred of grammar schools.” Kelly highlighted the delayed Social Investment Fund (worth £80 million) and Peter Robinson’s refusal to respond to interview requests from the Irish News. Gerry Adams had “exhausted all credibility and now needs to leave the stage.”

One of Kelly’s strongest points was her criticism of the NIO’s plan to postpone the next Assembly poll from 2015 to 2016: “The people of the North gave us a mandate for four years, and four years only, and we should not try to extend this mandate without consulting them.” The NIO has stated that there is “broadly based support” for the proposal i.e. from Sinn Féin, the DUP and the Alliance Party.

Interestingly, Kelly thought that Conall McDevitt had paid a “far too high a price for what was essentially a yellow card offence” and said he would be welcome back. McDevitt has himself admitted that the payments involved a serious breach of the Assembly code.

Pivotal point

European election candidate Alex Attwood said that politics was at the most “pivotal point” since 1998. The SDLP claims to be the most pro-European party in northern politics, although the title is also claimed by Alliance. Northern Ireland, he stated, “cannot be in the margins” of the Parliament as the EU expanded to the east and the SDLP was part of the continent’s second largest political group: the Party of European Socialists.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan condemned the “attempts to hijack” the Planning Bill and said that the SDLP needed to use their seat “to project a voice for the people who put us there”. Durkan stated: “We must get the message out to people that voting SDLP works because the SDLP works for people.”

Fifteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore called for a “broader mobilisation” of opinion across society in favour of a “more reconciled and prosperous future.”

He wanted to see more northern involvement in Irish trade missions. Gilmore focused on the need to build up North/South networks and relationships, although he has often been criticised for his lack of engagement until the flags dispute arose.

The SDLP, like the UUP, has circulated around the 100,000-vote mark in recent years and party sources will be looking at next year’s results to see if the long decline has steadied. A strong showing at local government is important for the party’s future as councillors provide a strong base for constituency work.

European Parliament election turnouts are traditionally lower than in other polls. Alban Maginness gained 78,489 first preferences as the party’s candidate in the 2009 election.

Policy focus: education

Despite having a relatively low profile, SDLP education spokesman Seán Rogers is one of the most experienced MLAs in his brief. Rogers has 30 years of experience as a teacher and is a former principal of St Louis Grammar School, Kilkeel.

Teachers, he said, suffer from “initiative overload, are pulled in different directions and are never listened to.” They needed help in developing human capital (their qualifications) and social capital i.e. “where teachers have the time to talk about what is developed in their classroom, and how they teach it.”

The proposed changes to the common funding formula, he said, could mean the loss of a teacher for some schools and would particularly affect small schools. The SDLP has suggested federation schemes – to group two or more primary schools under a single board of governors and principal – and a review of science in the primary school curriculum.

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