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

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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