SDLP exclusion over dues 'interpreted as disenfranchisement'
A VETERAN SDLP politician has warned that any efforts to exclude party representatives with outstanding dues from voting in this weekend's leadership contest would be "interpreted as disenfranchisement".
East Derry MLA John Dallat was speaking after reports that the party's executive had sought to enforce rules that deny a vote to members whose party contributions are not fully up to date.
It is understood that there has been ongoing disagreement in the party about how much elected representatives contribute to the SDLP's central coffers and that as a consequence not all MLAs "dues are fully paid up."
With next week's leadership contest between Alasdair McDonnell and Colum Eastwood looming, excluding some members from voting could have a significant impact on the outcome. Last week, Dr McDonnell indicated that the result would be close, saying he expected to win by a "handful" of votes.
An SDLP spokesman said the party executive had noted that fees from some elected representatives were still outstanding.
"The parliamentary and assembly group has decided that anybody who has fees outstanding will have those outstanding fees sorted by the weekend," the spokesman said.
Another party source said the executive's move was designed to be a "spur" to members who owed money rather than an attempt to exclude them from the leadership vote. The party executive is regarded as largely loyal to Dr McDonnell.
Mr Dallat told The Irish News that it was "unfortunate timing" that the issue had come to a head just days before the leadership vote.
"That this issue couldn't be handled internally is unfortunate and for it to emerge in the mouth of an election is open to interpretation – if it is a coincidence it's an unforrtunate one," said the East Derry MLA, who is backing Mr Eastwood in the leadership contest.
"There hasn't been unanimous agreement on how this issue is dealt with and as I understand it the executive has been asked to resolve it."
But the veteran assembly member warned that any effort to exclude representatives from next Saturday's leadership vote would be resisted.
"I believe that if this were to be enforced it could be interpreted as disenfranchisement and people won't stand for that," he said.
Mr Eastwood is bookies favourite to win the SDLP leadership contest when the party gathers for its annual conference in Armagh this weekend.
The 32-year-old's campaign has been endorsed by party grandee Seamus Mallon and former leader Mark Durkan.
On Saturday The Irish News revealed the findings of an internal SDLP report which predicted the party would lose five of its 14 assembly seats at the next Stormont election.
Based on voting patterns in May's Westminister election, when the SDLP vote slipped by 2.6 per cent, the report forecast that deputy leader Dolores Kelly and West Belfast MLA Alex Attwood would be among those who would struggle to get re-elected.