Tom Kelly: SDLP has talent but needs a strong message

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with policing spokeswoman Dolores Kelly. Picture by Hugh Rusell
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with policing spokeswoman Dolores Kelly. Picture by Hugh Rusell SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with policing spokeswoman Dolores Kelly. Picture by Hugh Rusell

EVEN in the bleakest of dark times, one thing all journalists agreed on was that SDLP annual conference was the highlight of the political conference season.

In those days, unionist conferences were like Christian renewal rallies and the Alliance outing was like having afternoon tea with the blue-rinse brigade from the Women’s Institute.

Back then, the SDLP conference was a full-blown weekend celebration with vigorous debates from the podium and passionate fall-outs at the bar.

Those conferences weren’t for the faint hearted. A robust constitution was required for the late nights, melancholic ballads and a never-ending flow of alcohol to fuel the atmosphere.

The fiefdom chieftains came with their clans.

With big personalities to the fore, as it says in Finnegan’s Wake, “a row and a ruction would soon began”. But like a family argument it was forgotten by Sunday morning with the help of a hearty breakfast, Bloody Mary and a dull hangover.

Once, after seething political debate, my late boss, Seamus Mallon, held court in the lounge. No-one was spared a lashing including this writer.

Next morning at breakfast, Mallon scoured around to find someone to sit with. Still stinging from the night before, everyone avoided catching his eye. I looked up and Mallon plunged down beside me. I did not speak.

Mallon then roared “Oh for God’s sake, if a man can’t have a row with his own friends, who can he row with! The place rippled with laughter.

Conferences were stacked with characters chomping at the bit to get to the microphone. They were unafraid of criticising the leadership. Amongst them was the great campaigner for LGBT rights, the late PA Mag Lochlainn, the impassioned Mackem Paul Hoben and the rumbustious, late Vincent Currie. A little known fact was that Tommy Keane, the former civil rights campaigner, got a motion supporting integrated education passed as far back as 1974.

Now it’s 2022 and the SDLP had arranged for a very different type of conference.

Spontaneity was to be replaced by stage management, real time by virtual.

A digital showcase for shiny ‘right on’ candidates to parade alongside the few remaining SDLP stalwarts.

The party political broadcast bellowed ‘People First’. And the SDLP showed that they were capable of putting ‘people first’ by cancelling their virtual extravaganza on learning of the premature death of DUP assembly colleague Christopher Stalford. A tragic loss at only 39 years of age and with a young family. A stark reminder that some things are much more important than politics.

The election broadcast focused on education, health, poverty and normality.

Intellectually the SDLP has always done heavy lifting on policy. But being smart doesn’t necessarily resonate with the electorate. Some of the most cerebral players were political failures in the north.

Colum Eastwood is right that his candidates team in the forthcoming election is diverse. Most are articulate and persuasive. Others lighter than a feather duster. Not exactly premier division as claimed but not Accrington Stanley either.

The SDLP assembly team misses both Eastwood and Claire Hanna at Stormont. That said, Matthew O’Toole, Nichola Mallon and Daniel McCrossan have the making of a great attacking forward line. Veteran Dolores Kelly continues to nail the policing brief.

There is potential for SDLP gains in May’s elections but losses are also very possible.

Opinion polls demonstrate the SDLP has a core support base, yet they also show they aren’t able to capitalise on public frustration with the duopoly of SF and DUP.

Eastwood says ignore the polls. That’s not so easy because polls often set their own dynamic. But ultimately this election will be about seats, not percentage points.

The SDLP is not devoid of talent. What is missing is a strong, coherent and repetitive message which cuts through to the public.

Seamus Heaney once wrote: ‘Sink or Swim by what we are’. Maybe that’s the same for the SDLP.