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. 

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Does it matter that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group?

Well yes, a little.

“#WESTMINSTERBUBBLE JOURNOS CHAT ON #WHATSAPP. NOW THAT’S INTERESTING,” writes the alt-left site Skwawkbox.

Its story refers to the fact that Westminster journalists have a WhatsApp group chat. The site finds this sinister, suggesting the chat could be used to “swap info, co-ordinate stories and narratives”:

“It’s a technology that worries Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in case terrorists use it – but its use by the Establishment for 1984-style message co-ordination would worry many people just as much.”

Skwawkbox’s shock was mocked by lobby journalists and spinners:


Your mole, who has sniffed around the lobby in its day, also finds the suggestion of journalists using the app for terrorist-style collusion a little hard to swallow. Like every other industry, journos are using WhatsApp because it’s the latest easy technology to have group chats on – and it’s less risky than bitching and whining in a Twitter DM thread, or on email, which your employers can access.

But my fellow moles in the Skwawkbox burrow have hit on something, even if they’ve hyped it up with the language of conspiracy. There is a problem with the way lobby journalists of different publications decide what the top lines of stories are every day, having been to the same briefings, and had the same chats.

It’s not that there’s a secret shady agreement to take a particular line about a certain party or individual – it’s that working together in such an environment fosters groupthink. They ask questions of government and opposition spokespeople as a group, they dismiss their responses as a group, and they decide the real story as a group.

As your mole’s former colleague Rafael Behr wrote in 2012:

“At the end [of a briefing], the assembled hacks feel they have established some underlying truth about what really happened, which, in the arch idiom of the trade, is generally agreed to have been revealed in what wasn’t said.”

Plus, filing a different story to what all your fellow reporters at rival papers have written could get you in trouble with your editor. The columnist David Aaronovitch wrote a piece in 2002, entitled “The lobby system poisons political journalism”, arguing that rather than pursuing new stories, often this ends up with lobby journalists repeating the same line:

“They display a "rush to story", in which they create between them an orthodoxy about a story – which then becomes impossible to dislodge.”

This tendency for stories to become stifled even led to the Independent and others boycotting the lobby in the Eighties, he notes.

Of course, colleagues in all industries have always communicated for work, social and organisational reasons in some way, and using WhatsApp is no different. But while Skwawkbox’s “revelation” might seem laughable to insiders, most people don’t know how political journalism works behind-the-scenes. It touches on a truth about how Westminster journalists operate – even if it’s wrong about their motive.

I'm a mole, innit.