GIVEN their current sorry state, it is sometimes difficult to believe that the UUP and SDLP ran Stormont a decade ago.
Since then their fortunes have largely declined in tandem while those of Sinn Fein and the DUP have risen to eclipse, and then dwarf, their rivals within each of Northern Ireland’s constitutional camps.
While the DUP has had two leaders in its history and Gerry Adams has been Sinn Fein president from before I was born, the tenure of UUP and SDLP leaders has become shorter and shorter.
Alasdair McDonnell assumed the reins of the SDLP last November and blundered sooner than anyone could have imagined, repeatedly stopping his first speech as leader to ask for television lights to be turned off because “I’m blinded”.
Speaking to the News Letter in his Stormont office, which overlooks Carson’s statue and the mile-long approach to Parliament Buildings, Dr McDonnell speaks with the bluntness that has long characterised his politics.
It’s got him into trouble more than once and it surprised few that in the leaked US embassy cables he was described as a “bull in the china shop approach”.
He has had to knit together internal factions which are often happy to brief against each other and earlier this year he was forced into a remarkable U-turn by colleagues.
Days after an interview with the Irish News in which he said that MLAs should get a “modest” pay rise, he distanced himself from his own comments which went against SDLP policy and insisted that MLAs’ basic pay of £43,000 was sufficient.
Dr McDonnell has taken over the SDLP during the longest period without an election for more than a decade. With the exception of by-elections, his party will not face the voters until spring 2014 in the European and local government elections.
The South Belfast MP insists that the party’s finances have “begun to pick up” and adds that he has reorganised the party behind the scenes, appointing 35 local representatives to act as “supplementary councillors” and activists.
While the party has lost much of its power, it still retains one seat at the Executive table in Stormont Castle.
But the SDLP leader is scathing of how the Executive is being run.
“People are deeply, deeply disappointed on the ground at the stagnation that’s taking place in this building and that’s whether they are nationalist, unionist, or whatever flavour of nationalism or unionism they espouse to,” he says, adding that there is “a recognition that while we try and the Ulster Unionists try, that we’re effectively shut out”.
He argues that many voters still credit the SDLP for “progress” during more turbulent political times, though fewer and fewer are turning out to vote for the party, and alleges that the DUP and Sinn Fein are “serving their self-interest” at the Executive.
Alex Attwood, the SDLP’s Environment Minister, is implementing one key policy with which he publicly disagrees but which he has been instructed by the DUP and Sinn Fein to push through.
Mr Attwood has argued for Northern Ireland’s 26 councils to be cut to 15 but Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have told him to replace the current councils with 11 new local authorities, which he has now agreed to implement.
Does that show that the SDLP has very little power?
“Well it shows that at the end of the day the DUP and Sinn Fein were prepared to walk over him or were prepared to try to walk over him. The point is that they wanted to squeeze him out of the Executive but we took a decision, an honest decision, that it was the lesser of two evils.
“We believe that a 15-council model is the best and every time we look at it and every time we review it, 15 is the best.
“We are baffled as to why Fermanagh should not have its own council; we are baffled as to why you want to separate Omagh from Strabane; we are baffled as to why you want to shove Strabane into Derry because we believe Derry would fit better with Limavady or parts of Limavady; we are baffled as to why we want a council that runs from Garron Point to Glack or Greysteel in Derry . . .”
But that is what the SDLP minister is implementing.
“Because they put a gun to Alex’s head and said ‘If you don’t implement this we’ll marginalise you, we’ll strip it off you’,” he says.
What then is the point of the SDLP having a minister if he cannot stand up for himself in those situations?
“The point of him being there is that we cannot allow the DUP and Sinn Fein to collude to basically put the public interest down the list. I don’t think I need to explain or to justify . . . Alex Attwood has been an excellent minister; he has fought his corner and he has done some wonderful things in the Department of the Environment and he’s been seen to do it.
“Alex is useful there; he brings a balance and he brings a challenge and a question to the sleepwalking that goes on in some of the other parties.”
But if people voted for the SDLP last year because they like what the party was saying about council reform, will they not now feel short-changed?
He says that people will have voted for the SDLP for “many reasons” and not just on the issue of council reform.
How will people who did care about this issue feel, though?
“Well, we’ll see at the next election what they feel about that. We feel unhappy; we feel that in due course there will have to be modifications. We see a lot of this stuff as being contrived for purely party-political jockeying so I’m sorry that we had to take a choice on this.
“But the choice we took was that we would hang in there and we would do what we could to alleviate the worst excesses of the scheme that they’ve created.”
Is not the logic of that argument that if there is an issue where the DUP and Sinn Fein make clear they will not let the SDLP’s minister do something, they just have to grin and bear it?
“We have to because of numbers, we have to make the best politics the art of the possible,” he says.
Even if it is an issue with the department which the SDLP supposedly controls?
“Politics is the art of the possible.”
An assistant calls across to say that “legally he [Mr Attwood] has to do it” and Mr McDonnell agrees: “Legally he has to do it. That’s the point. There’s a structure that set the whole thing up and it’s all legal. We had no choice – it was either opt out into the wilderness or suffer the dictat.”
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