Lack of succession planning resulted in an entire generation of very talented people retiring at one swoop. Political demographics and the break up of traditional allegiances have meant that electorally speaking the tide has been out for a long time. In 2005 Alasdair Mc Donnell unexpectedly won the South Belfast and temporarily saved the party blushes.
The 2007 Assembly Elections were catastrophic for the SDLP. While the party narrowly lost out on some seats; there are at least five others at risk. West Tyrone in particular was a spectacular ‘own goal’- thanks to a chaotic selection process. Even the bastion constituency of South Down saw the most dramatic drop in the party vote – a mere two years after comfortably securing the Westminster seat.
Based on the current state of the SDLP the suspension of the local government elections is a Godsend… Certainly many of the recently co-opted council replacements are electorally untested. Mark Durkan’s long good-bye means that the new leader will face an electoral test within months but at least the prospect of a new leader awoke the membership from their slumber.
The weekend saw the Party hold its Annual Conference and instead of being a pre-election rally it appeared to be more of a valedictory for the out-going Leader. That’s often the risk when themes are more about playing old favourites to the ‘in house’ audience rather than reaching out to audiences at home. SDLP speakers stuck rigidly to the secure ground of pantomime mocking of the Opposition and back-slapping each other.
The timing of the Conference could not have been worse. The so called Opposition –Sinn Fein and the DUP were being feted by the world for yet another allegedly historic Friday. Saturday morning papers hardly made pleasant reading for SDLP delegates. As the pantomime villains were being played up as heroes to the rest of Ireland and the world – only within the comfortable respite of the Slieve Donard- were the Ugly sisters still ugly.
To make matters worse, the INLA decided to decommission on Saturday too; thus pushing the SDLP’s newsworthiness even further down the headlines.
As if the public needed any reminding of the real issues not being addressed by an impotent Executive; the results of the 11 plus mish-mash of tests came out on Saturday to pile- drive the message home.
Even the start of the Six Nations and Ireland’s home game seemed to provide the BBC with scheduling problems –adding to the woes of a party struggling to make its voice heard. Mark Durkan’s speech clearly demonstrated the man’s commitment and conviction; even his compassion. Watching it on TV though; the emotion was just too raw to be appealing. His themes were too wide and for a small regional political party there was a feel of self- aggrandisement which has little credibility outside of Conference Hall.
As usual the speech was far too long especially for a TV audience. Despite these short-comings, one could n’t help but think that Durkan still has a major contribution to play in politics and given his wide interests Westminster is probably a better play-ground for him than the tedium of the Assembly.
The presence of the Taoiseach and Leaders of the Irish Opposition at the weekend appeared to be as much about staking a claim to the various elements of the SDLP carcass as to witness the retirement of a political Leader.
Ironically, the Party which prides itself on its equitable relationships with all Southern Parties could not stop SDLP veteran, Eddie Mc Grady making an unnecessary and unhelpful help a dig at Fianna Fail’s entry to the North. Ironic too because Irish Labour has been welcoming ‘northern’ members much longer than Fianna Fail but the outburst may have more to do with the political shake-up in South Down where Fianna Fail are generating considerable interest.
A change of Leader usually results in an opinion poll lift for a political party and Margaret Ritchie will soon have her mettle tested at the real polls in May. While it’s unfair to expect miracles so soon of a new Leader; the political verdict on her leadership will be harsh if the fortunes of the SDLP fall any further.
The so-called historic hand which fell on the North’s leaders last Friday had all the hallmarks of the three brass monkeys –as the two Governments were so desperate to do a deal and therein may lay future success for the SDLP.