SDLP had no option but to oust McDonnell

Posted By: November 16, 2015

Tom Kelly.Irish News. Monday, November 16, 2015

The SDLP conference is over and there is a new king. In a weekend of carnage and terror, the SDLP membership have convincingly opted for a change of direction.

Many moons ago, during another conference,the word came through to the floor of an SDLP closed session of the Enniskillen bomb at the war memorial.

Amid the reports of an all-time new low for the IRA, the SDLP seemed to have a renewed sense of purpose.

Back then people seemed to understand what the SDLP stood for – or at least what it didn’t stand for.

Over the years that sense of purpose was made redundant by time and circumstances.

The party and those that led it had no song to sing. It was as if the sole purpose of the SDLP was to convince militant republicanism that there was a better way.

Like most converts, the zeal of Sinn Féin/IRA for their new-found religion was breathtaking.

Slowly and bit by bit the SDLP found itself marginalised by the hipster Sinn Féin.

The smell of sulphur had an alluring appeal all the way from Ardoyne to the Áras and from Derry to Downing Street.

A whole generation of political leadership that had walked the streets winning hearts and minds during the long

struggle for civil rights found itself on the outside.

With neither guns nor prisoners the SDLP had no bargaining chips. As usual its leadership opted as it always did to do the right thing and sacrificed its soul for the greater good.

In fairness those leading the SDLP not surprisingly believed that any fall off in support would be a temporary malaise. A small price to pay for lasting peace.

It never entered their heads that the nationalist electorate would permanently turn its back on the party.

In speech after speech the leaders promised a new dawn.

Echoing Clement Attlee they proclaimed that Labour would no longer have to wait, there was even brave speak of a

post-nationalist era.

But this time around when the SDLP leadership spoke no-one was either listening or following.

A new generation of voters looked to the kids on block whilst older heads felt that the best way to cement peace was to switch political allegiance.

Forgetting the old adage that never a borrower or a lender be, it was believed – quite genuinely – that SDLP votes were only on loan.

Yet the appetite of the nationalist electorate was insatiable and it didn’t want equality, it wanted victory.

They too easily had forgotten the words of the late Eddie McGrady on the night of his election success over the notorious giant of unionism Enoch Powell, that it was the SDLP which had moved the “border from Carlingford Lough to Strangford Lough”.

Like a political Rip Van Winkle the SDLP went into a long slumber. Some of its brightest, like alcoholics, went into downright denial.

The halcyon days of Fitt, Hume, Mallon, Currie and McGrady were consigned to the history books. History would be kind to them, they said, but in the meantime the electors would not.

Rudderless when the civil rights generation stood aside, various leaders tried but failed to turn around the fortunes of the party.

Durkan, the political heir to Hume, could not unshackle himself from the legacy of his mentor.

Ritchie tried to create a new narrative for the SDLP but wasn’t given the time, and McDonnell like the little Dutch boy valiantly stuck his finger in the dyke in a vain attempt to stop the political tsunami of Sinn Féin.

Now in a last roll of the dice the SDLP membership has, as Monty Python would say, opted ‘for something completely different’.

In a way the membership had no option but to oust the leader. After 45 years in the SDLP, however well intentioned and despite his best efforts, Alasdair McDonnell was part of the past.

Understandably and at a human level McDonnell will feel hurt but in time he will see that his rejection is not personal but political.

He is of a generation that had had its day. Like others in the pantheon of constitutional nationalism, he could not stop the tide of history against a more radical albeit flawed alternative.

The SDLP’s new leader Colum Eastwood has a Herculean task ahead of him – starting with healing the wounds of division that have torn the party asunder since the departure of Hume and Mallon.

It won’t be easy but he is a new bird with a new song to sing.