Drastic changes are needed in the SDLP, not cosmetic ones

New SDLP leader Colum Eastwood makes his first speech as party leader.  The party fundamentally needs to change, not just by having a leader who talks a bit better in front of the TV lights, writes Connal Parr.
New SDLP leader Colum Eastwood makes his first speech as party leader. The party fundamentally needs to change, not just by having a leader who talks a bit better in front of the TV lights, writes Connal Parr.

Unlike the founding members who were known to occasionally thump one another, current SDLP representatives try to avoid airing their dirty linen in public.

Nonetheless the problem has always been: if the SDLP had trouble convincing each other, then how on earth could they convince the rest of us?

Dr Connal Parr, who tutors at Oxford University

Dr Connal Parr, who tutors at Oxford University

Several years ago one of the party’s nimbler MLAs confirmed to me in his office that the party was really a set of ‘chieftains’.

Now every organisation should be a broad church capable of housing dissent and strong characters, but for the SDLP this indiscipline has always been self-defeating.

Alasdair McDonnell and Dolores Kelly famously cannot stand each other. Yet somehow they wanted people to trust them, together, and retain them as the SDLP leadership. The party’s delegates quite understandably put them out of their misery.

The Belfast/Derry divide has always been debilitating. As Edna Longley has pointed out, the ‘L’ in the Party’s name is essentially a dead letter and has been since Gerry Fitt resigned as leader in 1979.

When Colum Eastwood wrested the leadership from McDonnell last weekend, he referred to the ‘democratic nationalism and republicanism’ as the traditions ‘from which we as a party were wrought and moulded’.

With this contemporary confirmation, the party should really change its name and remove its ‘L’ to become – as John Hume always envisioned it – the Social Democratic Party, because no authentic Labour element in truth remains.

A basic glance at the SDLP’s website reveals its priorities. As with Sinn Féin ‘A united Ireland’ is at the top, followed by the Irish language (Dominic Bradley does at least speak it well), and a fair way down are those minor issues of education, health and housing.

In comparison to other parties on the island, the SDLP’s unwavering dedication to parliamentary democracy appears almost moving.

However the fact is that in the eyes of many the new leader is best known for the time he carried the coffin of an INLA man he went to school with. Eastwood should not be judged on this incident – personal ties always overwhelm political allegiances – nor should he be held to someone else’s past.

But it does not suggest ‘the future’ he and his supporters pitched him as in the campaign. On the contrary, it suggests the deadly past.

In fairness to Eastwood his speeches have repeatedly condemned violence, and he is correct to remind people that the SDLP is the political heir to the civil rights movement. He deserves time and with young councillors and prominent women like Claire Hanna and Nichola Mallon, the party should not yet be written off.

If the SDLP has any future, it lies with them. But Eastwood has to re-build a decayed base at the same time as warding off a growing Leftward challenge in west Belfast (in the form of People Before Profit), not to mention the resilience of Sinn Féin.

He has said his party’s problem is one of ‘volubility’, but the SDLP itself fundamentally needs to change. Eastwood’s supporters think they can fix it by a cosmetic change of leader who talks a bit better in front of the TV lights.

As the recent case of Scotland shows, once people start identifying as strong nationalists they tend not to return to more moderate options. That vote has gone to Sinn Féin for good.

And in a theme which haunts the soul of the party, the SDLP has long clanged its tribal door shut. In recent times local government candidates refuse to canvas in Protestant areas of north Belfast because they are not ‘their’ areas.

This is a shameful indictment on the party, engaging only with what it knows and who it knows. When Barack Obama criticised Northern Ireland’s segregated schooling on his official visit in the summer of 2013, Councillor Pat Convery – mindful of certain vested interests – told a constituency meeting that the US President should butt out (strangely, given how hard Hume worked to involve the US in NI).

Will Eastwood tackle this deadening narrowness?

Or will he continue his party’s current reputation as a poor man’s Sinn Féin – prioritising the abstractions of a united Ireland before the realities of public services, but minus the slick PR, discipline and energy?

• Connal Parr tutors at Oxford University