Posted By: November 17, 2014

Tom Kelly. Irish News ( Belfast). Monday, November 17, 2014
MARGARET Thatcher liked to say that “power is like being a lady, if you have to tell people you are, you are not”. Beleaguered Labour leader, Ed Miliband must understand that. Nick Clegg does but he has the luxury of knowing that his party has no-one else to turn to but if anyone is going through the motions of leadership these days it’s, Alasdair McDonnell. 

He may carry the title, he may be both a MLA and MP and he may get top billing on the leaders rostrum at his party conference but few are convinced. It’s a pity for back in his heyday, McDonnell was bursting with energy, a pioneer of cross-community projects with Reg Empey when they were a pariah, he understood early and articulated that it was ultimately about the economy and jobs when some of his colleagues were still papering their bedrooms with posters of the Kennedys while learning the lyrics of the socialist L’ Internationale. 

He took the deputy lord mayor’ s post because he believed in creating confidence and because he was an optimistic, glass-half-full type of guy. 

One could not say that McDonnell was ever a beloved figure within the SDLP hierarchy but he could flex his shoulder blades when needed and in his own fashion got things done. A bear of a bruiser with a big heart. 

There is no doubt that McDonnell loves the SDLP and the people of Northern Ireland but his leadership proves that love is not reciprocal. 

In many ways he symbolises what the SDLP has become for many voters – a default choice. The least offensive option. That he has lasted this long his testimony to his tenacity more than his talents. During his tenure of the SDLP leadership he has overseen results that were foreseen by all – but him. 

These days, those SDLP members who can still remember the halcyon days of Hume, Mallon and Currie now have low expectations. On asking people at the conference what they thought of the leaders speech on Saturday most expressed relief that he finished it and that it was shorter than previous years. Try as he does the SDLP leader is a speech writer’s nightmare. He is to speech-making what Genghis Khan was to diplomacy. 

It would be wholly unfair to write off the SDLP based solely on the performance of its leader. It has some starlets if not stars. It is still a party of good, hard working, salt of the earth types who choose to get involved politically when many of them could so easily have devoted their efforts elsewhere to church, charities, clubs or their own families. 

Hearing that my friend and former work colleague, Nuala Feehan, who ran so diligently Seamus Mallon’s constituency office was recognised at the SDLP conference for her sterling contribution sums up all that is good about the SDLP – it’s heart-core rather than its hardcore. Nuala and others like her are the people who stand out against the “me Féin culture” in which we live in. 

Increasingly it is also these people who are being left behind as the SDLP as an organisation often falls prey to the vested interests of sectional lobby groups looking to pepper SDLP policies with trendy issues. The problem for the SDLP is that these sectional interests groups are not a homogenous group and there is little or no electoral benefit for the party in letting them drive the SDLP agenda. It’s like decorative icing on a Christmas cake, nice to pick off but not the substance of what you are eating. 

Maria Cahill’s presence at the SDLP conference may have appealed to the conscience of the party by doing the right thing but it seemed like voyeuristic window dressing. 

The SDLP leader made much of the fact that SDLP values are not for sale but what is the relevance of those values today – remembering values do change with time. 

There seems to be an over reliance on the use of tactics as a substitute for strategy and there’s certainly a need for consistency between the policy and actions of the SDLP in office. The Chinese military strategist Sin Tzu said that “tactics without strategy is merely the noise before defeat”. 

Of all the parties only the SDLP has shown a remarkable ability to alienate its core voters without winning any new ones. It has come to something when its the UUP that has a spring in its step.