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Opponents prepare SDLP leadership challenge

Under pressure...Alasdair McDonnell
Seamus McKinney

INTERNAL party opponents of SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell have claimed they will be able to officially challenge his leadership within weeks.

Opponents believe they will have secured the support of the ten SDLP branches necessary to trigger a leadership debate at a special party conference. They claim that at least six and possibly eight of the partys 65 branches have already passed resolutions demanding the leadership issue be addressed.

Following this months general election, Mr McDonnell came under intense pressure to quit after the partys overall vote declined.

Senior members joined party grandees, including Seamus Mallon and Brid Rodgers, in urging the SDLP leader to go. Former leader Foyle MP Mark Durkan and veteran assembly member, John Dallat have also called on the party leader to quit.

However, Mr McDonnell faced down his internal critics telling them he would not run away from a task half done. Mr McDonnell also won the backing of the SDLP party executive.

While he is likely to face a leadership challenge at the SDLP annual conference in November, Mr Donnells critics are keen to force the issue sooner than that. They believe that, should a new leader be elected in November, he or she would not have enough time to prepare for next years assembly elections.

A senior party source told the Irish News the SDLPs four Derry city branches as well as its Limavady and Coleraine branches have already passed resolutions demanding a special leadership conference.

The source, who declined to be named, said: We believe that within a couple of weeks well have more than the ten branches required. At that stage it will be up to the party executive to consider the branches resolutions but they (the executive) have a veto and given the way they backed the leadership already theyll more than likely fight any move to hold a conference.

At that stage itll more than likely come down to the parliamentary party (14 assembly members and three MPs) to deal with the issue.

If the branches opposed to Mr McDonnell fail in their bid to force the issue, the leadership issue could be parked until the party annual conference in November. Among those suggested as a future leader are Derry assembly member Colum Eastwood.

An SDLP spokesman last night played down any possiblility of a special conference to debate the leadership.

The spokesman said: The SDLP Executive Committee has currently received no notifications from any branch of the party requesting a special conference.

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