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Analysis: All eyes on Armagh and future of SDLP

SDLP Alasdair McDonnell in 2011 launching his of his leadership manifesto

By the time the Angelus bell rings out from Armagh's Catholic cathedral at six tomorrow evening we will know the outcome of the SDLP leadership contest taking place less than a mile away in the City Hotel. Will the comparatively youthful Colum Eastwood (32) have ousted Alasdair McDonnell (66) and will the party that was once to the fore in nationalist politics in the north be about to embark on a new chapter?

Or will Dr McDonnell prevail and secure at least another year to continue his renewal programme – the same renewal programme that over the past four years has coincided with a fall in party membership and a series of poor electoral performances. If the South Belfast MP does win, many believe it will be against the odds. The bookies had initially made 32-year-old Mr Eastwood their favourite, as have senior party figures past and present, with former leader John Hume's wife Pat the latest to endorse the former Derry mayor. Since betting opened, however, the prices for each have steadily moved closer together and they are now neck-and-neck at 5/6.

While the challenger may have the public support of SDLP grandees, Dr McDonnell believes he has the hearts and minds of activists on the ground. Throughout his long career in politics, the former GP has been a networker and latterly a bestower of patronage, which has seem him build considerable loyalty in the party. But Dr McDonnell is also renowned for his single-mindedness which has alienated many long-standing SDLP members and led a number of senior figures, such as former chair Rosemary Flanagan, to quit their posts.

If success in the leadership contest were measured on engagement with the media during the six-odd weeks of campaigning, then Mr Eastwood would win convincingly, as the gaffe-prone Dr McDonnell has sought to avoid interviews. His young challenger has been much less inconspicuous, taking every opportunity available to get his message across, though as yet it's hard to see how that message differs significantly from what has come before.

The SDLP's problems are not confined to its leadership's shortcomings or internal squabbles. The post-Good Friday Agreement rise of Sinn Féin has had the greatest impact on the party's fortunes, but to blame the SDLP entirely for that would be unfair – yet its response to being superseded at the polls has been lacklustre.

There is no doubt that the party that leaves Armagh after this weekend's conference will be a different one. Whether it's a reinvigorated movement or a party with a considerable contingent that is disillusioned, weary and close to throwing in the towel all hinges on the outcome of tomorrow's vote.

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