The SDLP leadership must now “look at themselves” after a trio of long-standing councillors quit in unison.
That was the message from Declan Boyle, one of the three ex-members of Belfast City Council’s SDLP team, who told the News Letter the party’s handling of their case was “bizarre” from a strategic point of view because it hampered its own ability to hold on to its Westminster seat in South Belfast.
The trio (group leader Pat Convery, his deputy Kate Mullan, and Mr Boyle) were suspended from the party over 10 weeks ago after falling foul of its leadership amid a dispute over a council motion.
Despite having a combined total of decades’-worth of experience in the SDLP, Mr Convery said the party hierarchy had treated them with “disrespect”.
They had been among just seven SDLP members on the 60-strong council. They continue to sit as independents.
The saga began on April 3 in a council meeting, when the Green Party proposed a motion which condemned alleged efforts by anti-abortion protestors “to physically block access to facilities” connected with abortion, as well as “intimidation” of people at such facilities.
The SDLP said that it had instructed all its councillors to back the motion.
However, the SDLP trio in question abstained – the only politicians at the meeting to do so.
In all, 50 councillors voted in favour of the motion (including members of both main unionist parties, and the other SDLP members present), and none voted against.
Mr Convery, a party member for about 18 years, told the News Letter the party had always historically been a “broad church”, but that now people are being sanctioned over “issues of conscience”.
“If they’re trying to attract people they have to ensure people are all welcome,” he said.
He said that the trio have faced “different forms of disrespect” from the party, including the fact he was told of their suspension by telephone, and details of their suspension being aired in the media.
Nor had they been able to meet the leader, Colum Eastwood.
He said he has been attacked before, and his family home has been attacked, stressing he has “not one iota of support for anyone who intimidates or threatens anybody” – and nor do the other councillors.
He said he abstained because people had written to him interpreting the vote as being about access to abortion, not about intimidation – and so he felt it conflicted with the SDLP’s pro-life stance.
Asked if the episode heralds a softening of the pro-life party’s stance on abortion, he said: “I don’t know.”
Mr Boyle said he and councillor Mullan would have campaigned to help erstwhile SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell retain his South Belfast seat in an extremely hard-fought general election battle if they had not been suspended. In the end, Dr McDonnell lost to the DUP.
Due to their suspension, the SDLP councillors did not help out on the doorsteps – and he said the party’s handling of the case looked “simply bizarre” in light of that.
“I’m sure we would’ve been to collect more votes. How many would have been enough or not? That’s an impossible question,” he said.
Regarding him quitting the party, Mr Boyle (an SDLP member for over 10 years) said: “They [the SDLP] will have to look at themselves.
“They way they handle their members, the way they handle their councillors. All that needs in my view to be addressed.
“You do not ignore your councillors. You do not put them on the long finger. You don’t treat them as if they’re not there.”
As to whether the episode heralds a possible change of the SDLP’s anti-abortion stance, he said: “It could be going that direction – I don’t know.”
The SDLP said: “Following a breach of party discipline, councillor Patrick Convery, councillor Kate Mullan and councillor Declan Boyle had the party whip withdrawn.
“The party process has been followed to deal with the matter. The councillors decided not to participate in that process. We thank them for their service.”
When it comes to its stance on abortion, it said: “The SDLP is a pro-life party. We oppose the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.”