If Eastwood defeats McDonnell, then what?

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell. Picture by Mal McCann
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell. Picture by Mal McCann SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell. Picture by Mal McCann

At this point could I ask regular readers of the column to either sit down or hold on to something solid? Alasdair McDonnell has a point. There, I said it: he has a point. Ok, he made it with all of the finesse of a particularly irritated bull in the Pamplona Bull Run, but he still has a valid point.

If he had substituted ‘Taig’ with ‘republican’ then he would have said something like, “the DUP don’t want republicans about the place.” And he’s right—they don’t. Indeed, most unionists would prefer a system of government that didn’t include ‘united Irelanders’ in the Executive; in precisely the same way most nationalists would rather they didn’t have to deal with ‘United Kingdomers.’

The shifting tectonics between unionism and republicanism is an issue which needs to be discussed, because that relationship is at the heart of our ongoing party political/institutional crises. Yet in using the ‘Taig’ word (and, in fairness, it’s been a very, very long time since I have heard anyone from any of the unionist parties use the word) he dragged himself and his party into a side argument about sectarianism. He gave unionists the chance to draw comparisons between his comments and Gerry Adams’s ‘bastards’ comments. It was a spectacularly stupid remark from a man who, whatever else he may be, is not a bigot.

He’s not a bigot. But nor is he a natural leader, either. He knew the challenges facing the party when he defeated Conall McDevitt in November 2011 and yet the SDLP is in a worse state now than it was then. It isn’t just the fact that the three elections under his leadership have been dreadful for the party; it’s the fact that he has singularly failed to unite them or give them a common sense of purpose.

Irrespective of who leads the SDLP into the Assembly election next May the chances of an electoral revival are non-existent. While the UUP and Alliance have a reasonable expectation of picking up extra seats—although it will require hard work from both of them—the SDLP will be struggling to hold on to the fourteen it has. McDonnell won’t even be a candidate for the Assembly and there’s no guarantee that the SDLP will hold on to the two seats it presently has in his South Belfast constituency. He won’t be able to lead the party from Westminster and when he’s not an MLA the Assembly party won’t want him to lead them—full stop.

I argued in this column months ago that he needed to stand down, stand down quickly and allow the party to have a proper debate about where it was going and who was best placed to take it there. But he’s still hanging on. Still deluding himself that there’s one more championship fight and a few more rounds for Big Al. But he’s not Rocky Balboa and this isn’t Hollywood.

Which brings us to Colum Eastwood. He’s younger, fitter, leaner and keen for the fight, yet it’s hard to avoid the feeling that he is not his own man in all of this. He looks like he has been selected and endorsed by an anti-McDonnell faction who just want someone—and anyone will do, it seems—who can land a heavy enough glove on McDonnell to bring him down. Yet it still looks like a dog-chasing-a-car territory to me. Yes, Eastwood may take him down, but what does he do then? The only thing that unites the anti-McDonnell crowd is their opposition to him: and once he’s down it seems likely that they will start pulling in different directions again.

Eastwood is talking up something he calls ‘progressive nationalism,’ which seems to me to be little more than his personal acknowledgement that the SDLP hasn’t been green enough since 1998, leading to it being eclipsed by Sinn Fein. Maybe he has noticed what Mike Nesbitt has done by shifting the UUP to harder ground in the last year and hopes to try something similar. The key difference, though, is that Nesbitt doesn’t have anything like the number of squabbling cabals and leaking dissidents that Eastwood will encounter if he wins. And if he loses, albeit only just, he’ll still be left on the bench when another coup is attempted next May.

There’s a bigger question, too. If the SDLP and UUP shift to ‘harder’ ground, or if the SDLP just continues the downward spiral, where’s the genuine, credible alternative to the DUP/SF axis? The serial criticisms of Robinson and McGuinness are justified, but in the absence of a clear alternative we’re stuck with them. That prospect should really shock the UUP and SDLP into doing something sensible and doing it together.