Eastwood represents change - and that may be enough for SDLP

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly is an Irish News columnist with a background in politics and public relations. He is also a former member of the Policing Board.

Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood believes it's time for change. Picture by Hugh Russell
Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood believes it's time for change. Picture by Hugh Russell Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood believes it's time for change. Picture by Hugh Russell

One by one the old guard of the SDLP has taken to the airwaves to commit to a change of leadership in the form of the young pretender, Colum Eastwood.

Grande dame of the party Bríd Rodgers has been to the fore of the assault. Even at 80 the feisty old school teacher still has bite.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Eastwood, Mrs Rodgers is a serial backer of candidates against McDonnell.

In 2010, she threw her considerable support behind the successful campaign of Margaret Ritchie against the burly doctor and then she backed the wrong horse in the next contest by supporting Conall McDevitt in 2011. There’s an unmistakable pattern here.

This time Mrs Rodgers' calls for McDonnell to go have been echoed by her long-time retired ministerial colleagues Sean Farren and Carmel Hanna.

Former SDLP leader and current Foyle MP Mark Durkan and former deputy first minister Seamus Mallon, who increasingly seems like the camerlengo of the SDLP, have already pronounced their views on the leadership of Big Al.

McDonnell boldly and somewhat contemptuously has brushed off criticism from colleagues and the éminence grise of the old guard but it’s all very embarrassing for him, or least it would be if the Antrim stalwart did embarrassment.

Now every single SDLP politician to have ever held a senior ministerial position in that party has nailed their colours to the Eastwood mast.

McDonnell is an indefatigable street fighter. He refuses to countenance defeat even when the evidence says otherwise.

After a bruising election he is still standing and to his credit he held his seat against a backdrop of a political smear campaign. His fortitude speaks volumes about him.

Yet there is no evidence, not even from the parameters that he has set for his leadership, that he achieved anything positive for the SDLP.

In the four years that he has led the party there have been three elections with each battle producing a worse result than the one before.

His supporters are amongst the most deluded and politically naïve politicos in Northern Ireland outside of the riotous calamity that was NI21.

It should be remembered that when Margaret Ritchie led the SDLP into the 2010 Westminster elections the SDLP share of the vote was 16.5%, but at the recent general election that share was reduced to 13.5%.

That 3% difference may seem small but in the forthcoming elections it could be the difference between the SDLP holding 16 Assembly seats or 12.

Ritchie was hounded and criticised for her media appearances but her solid, if wooden style was never as gaffe prone as the current leader.

It’s arguable that McDonnell’s infrequent media appearances during the Westminster elections were actually an asset to both him and the party.

The SDLP is a party deeply divided and it’s not about conservative v liberal or green v red differences, it's divided over its leaders and its leadership is divided too.

The greatest failure of the McDonnell era has been an inability to heal divisions and unite the party. His leadership style is more Genghis Khan than Mahatma Ghandi.

Two former leaders have said that it is impossible to lead the SDLP from Westminster but McDonnell stubbornly clings to the belief that they are wrong and he is right.

The decision by McDonnell’s political doppelganger Fearghal McKinney to contest for the deputy leadership of the party when the leadership already rests in the SDLP’s increasingly shrinking base in Belfast is pure folly.

But this is team McDonnell attempting to put manners on current deputy leader Dolores Kelly - an annoying renegade in their ranks.

Common sense would tell McKinney to withdraw and to concentrate on retaining the party’s fragile grip on that second seat in South Belfast. But when did common sense factor into SDLP thinking recently?

And now to man who would be leader, Colum Eastwood.

He certainly isn’t taking the easy route. Eastwood could have waited until after the Assembly elections. His timing is akin to taking the helm of the Titanic just as it strikes the iceberg.

Eastwood is making a gusty and bold move. Many outside of the SDLP don’t know who he is but that may be no disadvantage because they do know who McDonnell is and its clear that three elections on, they are not buying what he is selling.

What Eastwood is selling has yet to be spelt out but he does represent change. He looks and sounds different and that for now may be enough.