Posted By: May 18, 2015

Tom Kelly. Irish News ( belfast). Monday, May 18, 2015

LIKE many commentators I was surprised by Seamus Mallon’s dramatic intervention on the future of Alasdair McDonnell’s leadership of the SDLP. Mallon has remained silent on leadership issues so his comments as one of the SDLP’s last great vote winners are not easily ignored.

McDonnell, who has broad shoulders, found it easier to dismiss earlier criticism from other quarters within the SDLP. Mallon is different, his voice resonates and reaches the grassroots and external audiences in a way that McDonnell is incapable of. The beleaguered SDLP leader unconvincingly said he disagreed with Mallon’s view of his leadership, while conveniently forgetting he was happy enough to accept Mallon’s public plaudits earlier this year.

Mark Durkan’s intervention on the leadership issue was equally devastating and perhaps even more perilous to McDonnell’s future. The optimistic Fearghal McKinney took to the airwaves to defend his mentor. He enthusiastically waxed that the Westminster result was great for the SDLP and that last year’s council elections were also a roaring success. It was such a delusional defence that it brought back memories of Saddam Hussein’s information minister, Comical Ali.

As the SDLP leader huffed, puffed and gruffed his way around Belfast, politicos tried to fathom what is going on in the SDLP and why? But the sudden disgruntlement about leadership is not about one thing; it’s been a series of blunders, the manner of authority, lack of coherence and history of the personalities. Well, firstly, McDonnell is not a beloved SDLP leader. He got there by sheer tenacity and an ability to organise his own support base. He also got there too late in life. McDonnell’s struggle to become leader has never endeared him to his colleagues and he has made more than the usual number of internal enemies on his way up. He bravely interpreted his role for the SDLP in a messianic way. Unfortunately those of us who knew and liked the younger version of the man have seen nothing of his energy, gregarious character or kind heart. As a leader he has been bumbling, grumbling and increasingly intolerant. His coterie of loyal followers within the assembly is small and their fortunes are as tied to his fate as his own.

McDonnell has tried to micro-manage the party by interfering in constituencies, the membership of the executive and his media performances are erratic to say the least. He argues that he concentrates on the neglected party organisation but the facts are – in two consecutive elections – local government 2014 and Westminster 2015 the SDLP has had its worst results in the history of the party. Never slow to criticise the electoral shortcomings of his predecessors, some have no intention of letting him off the hook now.

Last week the SDLP vote dropped in 13 of the 18 constituencies and in three of the five areas there were insignificant gains; whereas the party is at risk of losing seats in West, South and North Belfast, Upper Bann and possibly East Derry.

To his credit and against the backdrop of an ugly electoral battle, McDonnell clung on to his seat but with a 16.5 per cent decrease his grip is loose. Forthcoming boundary changes could leave the SDLP with no MP in city.

Under the McDonnell leadership there has been no political coherency in messaging. The SDLP is like flotsam on the political seas with policies that are right, left and sometimes downright looney, such as getting stuck on the welfare reform hook to the exclusion of all else. The nonsensical decision to pull out of the leaders debates (and from hustings events in his own constituency) meant that the SDLP fought an election by proxy with Mark Durkan left to do battle for hearts and minds.

This was a neutral election result for the SDLP. Importantly the party did not lose any seats but the feeling was more relief than euphoria because beneath the headlines lurk further losses. Some now realise that there is a need for a more fundamental reform of the SDLP’s political message and purpose but there’s also an immediacy to save those vulnerable Assembly seats too. McDonnell has been like a leader with his finger stuck in the dam while his party haemorrhages. The Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy narrowly won a confidence vote but decided he should go because he recognised as long as he remained leader, the party would remain divided. The SDLP assembly members and MPs must soon decide whether they can unite under McDonnell leadership or not. Either way the clock is ticking.