We will confound critics and baffle cynics says McDonnell

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell attacked the DUP and Sinn Fein's record in government as he told the party conference of his high expectations for European and local government elections next May.

Pointing to the executive's handling of health, education and efforts to build a shared future, Dr McDonnell said the Stormont coalition's two dominant parties had been given a chance to govern but had "failed the test".

"The DUP and Sinn Fein are the parties of disappointment, false promise, poor government, bad politics and no results," he said.

The South Belfast MP and MLA was speaking on Saturday as around 400 SDLP delegates gathered for the party's annual conference in Armagh's City Hotel.

It marked the second anniversary of Dr McDonnell's election as party leader.

He said he pledged then to reorganise and regenerate the SDLP and that it was now "vigorously renewed and re-energised".

Dr McDonnell said the party was ready for next year's elections and that with the help of those present the SDLP would "confound the critics and baffle the cynics".

The SDLP leader recently indicated to The Irish News that it aimed to take around 80 seats in May's local government elections, a target that represents roughly a 10 per cent increase in council representatives.

He said people complain to him on a daily basis about feeling "very badly let down" by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

However, Dr McDonnell said the public saw how the SDLP's elected representatives "make a real difference in challenging and facing down bad politics and poor government".

The 64-year-old said the party's three core values are reconciliation, social justice and prosperity.

He pledged that it would work for reconciliation within Northern Ireland, across the border and between in Ireland and Britain.

The SDLP leader stressed the need for access to good public services while at the same time improving employment opportunities and economic prosperity.

He urged the British, Irish and regional government to establish a "meaningful prosperity process".

"A prosperity process that would in time, crucially, permit the north to stand on its own feet, pay its own way and play its rightful role in the development of a buoyant all-island economy," he said.

Addressing a conference which would later hear from Denise Fox, who was four when the notorious 'Glenanne gang' murdered her father and SDLP stalwart Dennis Mullen, Dr McDonnell said it was important to get the truth about collusion between the British state forces and loyalists.

However, he noted that while collusion was "truly shocking" it never "justified a single IRA atrocity".

As well as highlighting the need to address the past, the SDLP leader spelt out his party's views on parades and flags.

He said the party made no apologies for seeking parity of esteem for

the Irish tricolour and other nationalist symbols and emblems, and he called on the British and Irish governments to be "the co-guarantors of any agreement emerging from the Haass talks".

"They must be fully engaged in any outcomes and exert the power and influence for a sustainable solution," he said.

Dr McDonnell also said the SDLP would fight to protect the Housing Executive's "operational independence" and called for the re-establishment of the Civic Forum.

Senior party figures present at the conference included former leaders John Hume, Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie, along with former Stormont ministers Seamus Mallon and Brid Rodgers. Absent due to illness was former South Down MP Eddie McGrady, who received a number of tributes from speakers, including Dr McDonnell.

The conference also saw former environment minister Alex Attwood officially endorsed as the party's European candidate and heard a call by deputy leader Dolores Kelly for a referendum on extending Stormont's mandate.

On Saturday the conference heard from guest speakers including shadow secretary of state Ivan Lewis, SDLP founding member and former TD Austin Currie, and tanaiste and Irish Labour leader Eamon Gilmore.


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