THERE were chuckles on the DUP benches when, within about 90 seconds of Lord Morrow demanding that Alasdair McDonnell appear at Monday night’s debate, the SDLP leader made his way into the chamber.
As the debate became increasingly charged, Lord Morrow said it was sad that “there will be no leadership from the SDLP on this important issue.
“Indeed, I challenge that party and ask it where their leader is and why, when he was in the Chamber earlier, he could not be here for this important debate.
“It is scandalous when you listen to some of the stuff that is coming from the ranks of the SDLP.”
When Dr McDonnell came through the double doors of the chambers with a bag in hand, it was not clear whether the timing of his appearance was coincidental to what had just been said.
However, after a brief period where he stood speaking to colleague Pat Ramsey and then sat on the backbenches, Dr McDonnell left and did not return to vote.
And when the SDLP did vote, there was some surprise.
During the keenly contested debate, the party’s MLAs had argued with Sinn Fein against the unionist contention that attempts to free Gerry McGeough were insensitive and that instead it was Sammy Brush who should be supported.
But, when the Speaker called a division, SDLP MLAs parted from their Sinn Fein counterparts to move through the ‘aye’ lobby with unionist and Alliance MLAs.
The party has attempted to argue that it opposes what McGeough did in 1981 but nevertheless believes that his punishment for those actions is unfair, as he served time in a foreign jail and has been refused the royal prerogative of mercy.
However, those arguments yesterday were difficult to make as Cllr Brush sat just yards above the SDLP MLAs.
The party faced criticism yesterday from unionists and – more significantly in electoral terms – from the Alliance Party about an issue which will cause some in the SDLP unease.
Last night it appeared that, with its party conference just days away, it was safer for the party to hedge its bets; speaking in favour of McGeough but voting in favour of his victim.