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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.

By Kevin Meagher

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:

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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.