Long-standing tensions within the SDLP are threatening to tear the party apart as leader Alasdair McDonnell finds himself under massive internal pressure to quit – but has made clear that he won’t go easily.
A source familiar with Monday’s SDLP group meeting at Stormont told the News Letter that the party’s deputy leader, Dolores Kelly, had told Dr McDonnell that his leadership had been a negative on the doorsteps.
When asked about that on Monday night, Mrs Kelly declined to comment.
The meeting was said to have been “brutal”, with raised voices in the room.
Dr McDonnell – who was re-elected as South Belfast MP on Thursday but saw his majority cut to just 906 votes, while the party’s vote across Northern Ireland slipped a further 2.6 percentage points – said on Sunday that he intended to leave the Assembly at some point before double-jobbing is outlawed next year, but is attempting to continue leading the party from Westminster.
Former leader Mark Durkan had been expected to join the SDLP group meeting at Stormont.
Some SDLP members believed that he would have been there to wield the knife on Dr McDonnell and that his standing within the party would have made such a move crucial in bringing questions about the leadership to a head.
In the end, Mr Durkan did not attend the meeting at all.
On Monday the Irish News reported veteran SDLP Assemblyman John Dallat as saying that they party required “a new beginning” and that it needed to “let new blood through – unblock the bottleneck that is preventing young talent from emerging”.
But a “senior SDLP source” loyal to Dr McDonnell briefed the BBC that the South Belfast MP and MLA intended to stay as leader. According to the BBC, the unnamed individual claimed that Dr McDonnell’s internal opponents “had planned a coup either way, whether Dr McDonnell won or lost in South Belfast”. And in a pointed comment seemingly aimed at Mrs Kelly, the source said that some of the candidates favoured by the critics had lost votes at the election.
Former SDLP minister Brid Rodgers told the BBC: “Personally, I think that the party leader needs to be in the Assembly and Alasdair says he will be concentrating on Westminster.”
On Friday, SDLP MLA Fearghal McKinney – a close ally of Dr McDonnell’s – told BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme that Dr McDonnell could continue to lead the party from Westminster.
That claim raised eyebrows among some in the nationalist party, given that it is now widely accepted even by the unionist parties that the shift of power to Stormont means that their leader needs to be there.
For a nationalist party to have its leader in the House of Commons rather than at Stormont would be particularly unusual.
When Mr Durkan stood down as leader in 2009, the Foyle MLA cited the need to end double-jobbing and what he saw as the impossibility of leading the party from Westminster as two key reasons for his decision.
At that point, the SDLP released a statement from Mr Durkan in which he said: “The SDLP cannot be ‘long-led’ from Westminster.”
The statement added: “Mark Durkan has said both publicly and privately that if he is elected again as MP for Foyle he would be stepping down from the Assembly.
“This position clearly has implications for the leadership of the party, which has led Mr Durkan to announce that he plans to stand aside as leader in the near future.”
The SDLP’s shrunken MLA team means that there is a small pool of potential successors. Mrs Kelly has been vocal about the need for the party to quit the Executive and enter opposition. Young Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood is regarded as highly capable, while former deputy leader Patsy McGlone is steeped in the party’s history and would present a rural alternative.