Analysis: McDonnell may survive, but the SDLP is crumbling around him

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell

During the election campaign, Alasdair McDonnell took a gamble which paid off in the short term but which has possibly fatally undermined his leadership.

Those around Dr McDonnell clearly know that he is a poor public performer and persuaded him not to take part in a series of high profile public debates.

He missed the two major hustings events in his South Belfast constituency and did not represent the party in any of the three major televised debates – one on BBC Two’s Newsnight, another on UTV and a final on BBC One Northern Ireland.

On the final debate, Dr McDonnell’s absence was particularly stark as he withdrew just hours before the programme was to be broadcast.

On each occasion, former leader Mark Durkan filled the gap and performed well.

Keeping Dr McDonnell away from potential gaffes in those debates may have helped to save his seat in South Belfast, where he clung on impressively by 900 votes.

But it is dangerous for a leader to abdicate his position repeatedly – all the more so when his stand-in performs strongly and begins to look like the de facto leader.

Giving Mr Durkan a platform to remind SDLP voters of what they have been missing – an articulate, passionate voice who unlike the double-jobbing Dr McDonnell can point to his impressive Westminster record – has simply made Mr Durkan’s sombrely brutal knifing of his leader carry more force.

Dr McDonnell now faces open calls from a former leader, an MLA (John Dallat) and two SDLP grandees – Seamus Mallon and Brid Rodgers – to go, while privately several of his senior colleagues are incensed at his failure to recognise the continued collapse of the SDLP vote.

Arrayed against that small army of party heavyweights, Dr McDonnell’s chief defender (although yesterday Joe Hendron phoned BBC Talkback to support Dr McDonnell) is former UTV journalist Fearghal McKinney — a figure who is still new to the party, has never been elected and who owes his position to Dr McDonnell’s leadership.

Yesterday Mr McKinney sounded delusional as he spoke of what he claimed was the party’s success under Dr McDonnell, despite its vote falling in every one of the three elections into which he has led the party. He said that in last week’s Westminster election – the worst result in the 45-year history of the party – the SDLP had done “very well”.

Yet, even some of those hoping that Dr McDonnell will go acknowledge that he has support within the party’s membership and may well hang on in a leadership contest.

The problem for him is that while he has backing among a few hundred SDLP members, his support within the Assembly group (where he could face a vote of confidence) is shrinking.

More importantly – so is the party’s vote.