McDonnell determined to stand firm against critics

Posted By: September 28, 2015

Facing criticism over his leadership and unionist ire at his latest comments Alasdair McDonnell is unrepentant. He gives Political Correspondent John Manley an upbeat assessment of his record as SDLP leader… 

McDonnell determined to stand firm against critics
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell. Picture by Mal McCann
John Manley. Irish News(Belfast). Monday, September, 2015 

ALASDAIR McDonnell doesn’t court controversy but it does have a tendency to stalk him.

From his first moments as SDLP leader when he was blinded by those bright lights to the latest ‘Taigs’ episode, the 66-year-old former GP’s time in the party’s top job has often been marked by unwelcome publicity.

Then there is his fraught relationship with fellow party representatives and his insistence on remaining leader despite unprecedented calls to go from past and present colleagues.

Yet this trail of strife is not one Dr McDonnell recognises.

For him, the party is healthy and rejuvenated, thanks to a programme he put in place on becoming leader almost four years ago.

Last May’s Westminster poll was “a good election”, he says, as the SDLP retained its three seats – his own in South Belfast has the distinction of being won with the lowest ever share of the vote at 24.5 per cent.

When reminded that the SDLP’s overall share of the vote slid by 2.6 per cent, he responds: “You could have gained five per cent of the vote but lost a seat or two and that would’ve been a failure.

“In one or two places the vote slipped and that pulled us back.”

The party enjoyed a good lift in Foyle and West Tyrone but elsewhere the performance was generally poor, contributing to the lowest joint nationalist-republican turnout for two decades.

It was in the aftermath of the election that simmering internal disquiet quickly grew into a crescendo of calls for Dr McDonnell to step aside. Asked how he felt when urged to resign by former deputy first minister Seamus Mallon and one-time leader Mark Durkan, the South Belfast MP appears nonchalant.

“They’re entitled to their opinion,” he says.

“”I don’t take this as personal – I see this as a job to be done.”

Speaking before last Friday’s deadline for nominees to contest the SDLP leadership at November’s annual conference, Dr McDonnell insists he knows nothing of the challenge that was confirmed later that day, while he also neglects to mention a bid by his close ally Fearghal McKinney to take the deputy leader’s post from Dolores Kelly.

“I have always said that I am not precious about the leadership,” he says.

“I’ll do what I perceive to be needed and if someone comes along with better ideas and a better plan I’ll gladly make way for them.”

There was further speculation about Dr McDonnell’s leadership less than a month after the general election when he resigned his assembly seat ahead of new rules outlawing double jobbing.

His decision to remain as an MP went against the example set by Mark Durkan, who when stepping down as leader in 2010 said the SDLP could not be led from Westminster.

With an assembly election looming, many within the party believe it is essential the SDLP is led from Stormont.

Dr McDonnell clearly disagrees: “Stormont is only one part of the SDLP.”

He adds: “Leadership is about a lot of things, it’s not just about the assembly” before noting how he now spends as much time at Parliament Buildings in Belfast as he did when an MLA.

Perhaps his increased presence at Stormont can be partially explained by another round of talks designed to resolve the welfare reform impasse and build trust in the wake of the murder of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan last month.

On the latter issue and the crisis in the institutions it has precipitated the SDLP leader is critical of both Sinn Féin and unionists.

He describes Mike Nesbitt’s decision to withdraw his minister from the Stormont executive as “disproportionate” and the DUP’s subsequent cycle of resignations and reappointments as “gimmicks and antics” to entertain the media.

The SDLP leader raises concerns about the republican movement’s continued association with violence and organised crime, such as illegal dumping, cigarette smuggling and diesel laundering. Asked where the proceeds of these crimes are ending up, the SDLP is “not in a position to say categorically”.

“I can have my suspicions; I can hear what people tell me and I hear the stories about people who have no obvious source of income living a very high value lifestyle,” he says.

While his party did not ratify last Christmas’s Stormont House Agreement as it only constituted a “heads of agreement” with “big gaps in it”, he believes it offered a template for progress. However, Dr McDonnell believes the DUP/Sinn Féin veto on his party’s amendments to the welfare legislation coupled with further Tory cuts in July have made even more people in the north vulnerable.

He also accuses the DUP of a “lack of commitment” to addressing the legacy elements of the agreement. His frustrations with Peter Robinson’s party came to the surface last week with his claim that the DUP “don’t want a Taig about the place”.

Dr McDonnell said he used the anachronistic term for Catholics to highlight a mentality which he believes still prevails in the DUP, pointing to Arlene Foster’s recent comments about remaining in the executive to guard against “rogue” ministers.

“It is patently obvious to thousands of people out there that the DUP resist power sharing tooth and nail,” he says.

“Partnership with power sharing was the foundation of the agreement and the DUP on every occasion to try and renege – that’s how I see it and that’s how thousands of others see it – and I called it as it is.”