Claire Hanna: ‘problems’ with SDLP message

Posted By: June 06, 2014


By Stephen Walker. BBC News NI Political Reporter. Thursday, June 5, 2014

One of Belfast’s SDLP councillors has said there is a problem with the party’s message and it needs fixed.Claire Hanna was speaking after her party fell short of its own council election targets and failed to win a seat in the European elections.

She told BBC Northern Ireland’s programme The View that the SDLP’s message is not distinctive enough.

She said she believes the party should leave the Stormont Executive.

Claire Hanna
Councillor Claire Hanna said the SDLP needs to fix its message
Interviewed for BBC Northern Ireland’s programme The View, she said: “There is a problem with our message and throughout the party we do need to fix the message.”

Leadership test
Her comments come after the SDLP had its worst ever result in the European elections and recorded one of its worst performances in council elections.

Last month’s poll marked Alasdair McDonnell’s first province-wide test as party leader.

When interviewed back in November 2013, he said he would like 80 seats in the new councils and would regard fewer than 70 as a loss.

The party ended up with 66 seats.

Alasdair McDonnell
Alasdair McDonnell admitted to Tara Mills that the SDLP’s 2014 election result was “not as good as we would have liked”.
As the results came in he told the BBC: “We are very pleased with the result. It is not as good as we would have liked. You never get as much as you would like.”

The results have led to behind the scenes conversations among activists about the future direction of the party.

A number of senior figures have told the BBC that they are privately worried about Alasdair McDonnell’s leadership.

The South Belfast MP who is also an MLA became leader in 2011 after he replaced South Down MP Margaret Ritchie.

Discontent in ranks

Talk of discontent in party ranks has been played down by the new Mayor of Belfast City Council, Nichola Mallon.

The SDLP councillor told The View: “I certainly don’t think there are any discussions of that nature.”

The newly appointed First Citizen, who is part of a growing band of female SDLP councillors, also dismissed talk of a leadership challenge.

She said: “It is not in my mindset and I do not think it is in any others’.”

She added: “Alasdair is the right leader”.

Nichola Mallon
Nichola Mallon, the new Lord Mayor of Belfast, dismissed talk of a leadership challenge
Although the SDLP has seen more women join its ranks and witnessed an increase in new candidates, its vote fell across Northern Ireland.

Alex Attwood, who had high hopes of securing a European seat, failed to dislodge one of the sitting MEPs from Sinn Féin, the DUP and the UUP.

In Londonderry, elections to the newly formed Derry and Strabane Council did not go well for the SDLP and figures show how the electoral map has changed in the north west of Northern Ireland.

‘Not a good election’
On the basis of last month’s council poll Sinn Féin got more votes than the SDLP in Derry – an unprecedented result.

Eamon Sweeney, editor of the Derry Journal, said that the result posed serious questions about Alasdair McDonnell’s leadership.

He told The View: “There is no disguising the fact that it was not a good election for the SDLP.

“Many other personalities that we know throughout the years have lost their leadership because of that.”

The results in the north west are significant for a number of reasons.

The parliamentary seat of Foyle was for years a political fortress held by John Hume and the city is part of the party’s DNA.

Current SDLP MP Mark Durkan will defend the seat in May 2015 but in recent elections he has seen Sinn Fein eat into his majority.

Back in 2001, John Hume won the seat and was 11,500 votes ahead of Sinn Féin.

In 2005, Sinn Féin closed the gap to 6,000 and in the last election in 2010 they narrowed the difference to 5,000 votes.

Irreversible changes
South Belfast councillor Claire Hanna admitted that the European and council elections could have gone much better.

She would not be drawn on whether there should a leadership challenge.

She said: “I am not going to get into who should or who should not be at the top of the party.

“We need to find a way to work together.”

Former SDLP Director of Communications Barry Turley said that the recent results were not good and he accepted that the changes in nationalist politics were irreversible.

He told The View: “Is there going to be situation where the SDLP becomes the largest party in Northern Nationalism? Probably not.”

Mr Turley, who worked for the party from 1999 to 2002, said the party still had a place in local politics.

The View is on BBC One at 22:35 BST on Thursday or you can catch up on iPlayer.