So it’s all over, the press, the opinions and then the subsequent awkwardness has been and gone. No, I am not referring the glitz and glamour of the very successful MTV EMA awards held in Belfast last weekend, I am actually referring to a rather less glamouress affair; the SDLP annual conference. Upon arrival at the event staged this past weekend at the Ramada Hotel, there was a buzz that can only be spawned by an election. This was the day that the SDLP would ditch Margaret Ritchie and replace her with their new leader. Many neutrals such as me watched on with interest wondering what would be next for the SDLP, and what direction (if any) they would go next. I was welcomed by several excitable younger party members with “VOTE McDevitt” badges attached to their McDevitt t-shirts. As I strolled through the building, I passed by a large pop up stand with Atwood on it and upstairs in the function room, a throng of delegates could be seen supporting Patsy McGlone. The leadership candidates had their supporters badgering delegates upon arrival, pressing the flesh for that all important vote. After visiting the stalls, and quizzing a few delegates, I then witnessed a different site, that of Dr. Alasdair McDonnell himself networking by shaking hands and walking around talking personally to seemingly every delegate in the building. No branded clothing or badges, just “Big Al” the eventual winner of the contest.
As the conference began and as Conall McDevitt had one of his two speeches within the first hour, McDonnell could be seen circulating the main hall speaking with each delegate. The “Bull who brings his China shop everywhere with him” was here to win. The contrast between the younger and older candidates in the race could not be more different: McDevitt the Orator, McDonnell the networker. McDonnell the old head of the SDLP who has ruffled feathers amongst its establishment for most of his political life and McDevitt the perceived upstart of the party, but one who was seemingly going well amongst its delegates.
Throughout the day, there had been a feeling that McDonnell was polling well, but the final numbers did surprise many. (Many keen observers got it completely wrong.) Patsy McGlone, long considered a favourite in the contest polled very badly. The Environment Minister Alex Atwood,despite or possibly down to Margaret Ritchie’s last minute on stage endorsement finished in last place, but it was McDevitt, the youngest of the candidates who appeared to fair the best of the rest by finishing a close second.
McDonnell triumphed and upon the result, he emotionally remarked that the victory was “the proudest moment of my political life“ and that he would spell out his vision for the SDLP on the Sunday. “Could someone turn the lights off” is not exactly the message or vision that the new leader likely wanted to be conveyed in his opening speech, but due to apparent technical difficulties at the conference, the message that media reported was exactly that.
It was clear to many in attendance that the SDLP need to change their setup. A lack of general organisation, changes to the agenda, and even some motions without speakers did at times give the impression of a party that is a little all over the place. The SDLP certainly needs to work on its image as Alex Kane recently pointed out, but having a distinct mission at Stormont and direction would possibly help them to have a hook on which to make those changes.
McDonnell has spent the last few days trying his best to move on from the P.R. disaster of a start and has indicated to the surprise of some that the SDLP will not be going into opposition at Stormont, but instead he will overhaul the party and its structures. He also set out plans to set up a “small commission” which would be tasked with improving the organisation of the party. Poking fun at the description of him as a “bull in a china shop”, McDonnell said that he took the analogy as a “tribute to my reserves of energy and passion,tempered with wise counsel”.
He has also suggested that he will bring his leadership rivals on board with him and work on an approach going forward of “collective leadership.” Given that numerous delegates in the lobby spoke afterwards of McDevitts showing in the race for the leadership, and his history in “supporting” Margaret Ritchie, many questioned whether his loyalty to his new leader will be as full proof as he suggested on Saturday. One thing is abundantly clear from the SDLP conference; it can no longer be the party that looks fondly back with misty eyes at its own involvement in the Belfast Agreement, something which McDonnell has already mentioned this week ..”We must now face up to the reality that the Good Friday Agreement has run out of road.”
There certainly are dilemma’s facing the new SDLP leader. (P.R. nightmare start aside) Will they go into “an opposition?” Will their leader be given the breathing space to outline his plans? Will former leadership candidates undermine him?
Under “Big Al”, it will certainly be interesting viewing from the sidelines, but one has to ask the question; what exactly do the SDLP offer as an alternative in 2011? The SDLP has been in “think tank obscurity” for a number of years, and one would surmise that if their new leader doesn’t outline their plans and answer that very question, it could in fact be “lights out” permanently.
Jonathan Lavery is a Student, Blogger and a hack with a keen interest in British and Northern Irish politics.
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