Alasdair McDonnell attends the funeral of Gerry Conlon. Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Why has Northern Ireland's "nice party" gone to war?

A continuing squeeze from both sides and an underwhelming leader all add up to a party in crisis.

A fringe party tearing itself apart. Open dissent about a leader who is thought to be past his best. A lack of cohesion about where they go next.

Not Ukip, but the SDLP. That’s the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Northern Ireland’s moderate nationalist party, where there is growing frustration about the performance of its lacklustre leader, Alasdair McDonnell.

He plans to step down from the Northern Ireland Assembly to focus on leading the party from Westminster instead. This may have been with the intention of wielding influence in a tight House of Commons, but it sends an odd message a year out from assembly elections. It’s the equivalent of the next Labour leader choosing to sit in the European Parliament instead of the House of Commons.

But there appears to be a deeper problem. The underwhelming McDonnell, a former GP, has a dose of Milibanditis. He was “a real issue” on the doorstep during the recent general election, at least according to the party’s former leader, Mark Durkan. Another ex-leader, former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, has called for him to go "as soon as possible".

McDonnell himself says that he’s not going to "run away from a task half done," although the threat of removal at the party’s November conference looms. For now, he has secured watery support from his executive committee:

The executive endorses the strategic direction and development of the party under the leadership of Alasdair McDonnell and will continue to support him in that regard."

This row is unexpected. On any measure, the SDLP are the nice guys of Northern Irish politics, coming out of the civil rights struggle back in 1970. The party was, for decades, at the forefront of attempts to provide genuine cross-community power-sharing with recalcitrant unionists who didn’t want to include Catholics in the affairs of their sectarian state and equally truculent republicans who saw no other viable path to militarism.

Party leader for much of its history, John Hume, was a tireless pursuer of peace. More than anyone else, he was responsible for convincing republicans that there was greater merit in politics than war. Without Hume, there would be no peace process. His reward for coaxing Sinn Fein into becoming fully involved in politics and giving up the armed struggle earned him a much-deserved Nobel Prize.

His party has not been so fortunate. Quickly eclipsed by the better-organised and better-financed Shinners, the SDLP has struggled under a series of leaders to define a role for itself. It still has a constituency, picking up support from middle-class Catholics who blanch at the prospect of voting Sinn Fein, but it is reduced to bit-part status in Northern Ireland’s power politics, which are carved up by Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists.

There is no shortage of resentment about playing second fiddle and some of this blow-up over McDonnell’s leadership stems from the frustration of marginalisation. Alas, the SDLP’s immediate future is no rosier than its immediate past. Whether they rate their leader, or not.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Show Hide image

If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood