The leadership battle in the SDLP reaches a climax tomorrow when youthful challenger Colum Eastwood is expected to unseat party stalwart Alasdair McDonnell.
The 32-year-old Derry-based Assembly member (pictured, left) has said he plans a “new brand of nationalism” that would have greater electoral appeal for the Social, Democratic and Labour Party, the second largest nationalist party in the North of Ireland.
Dr McDonnell (66) (right) has said he is not precious about the party leadership and welcomes the opportunity to defend his record, but pundits and bookies alike suggest the tide may have already gone out on McDonnell’s leadership.
This week a leaked internal report showed that the party faces heavy losses of more than a third in the forthcoming Assembly election. A document compiled by SDLP headquarters shows leading party figures, including current deputy leader Dolores Kelly and European election candidate Alex Attwood, will be among those who could fail to get re-elected.
It follows a continuing slide in the SDLP’s fortunes which began with the growth of Sinn Fein in the 1980s and 1990s and continued with the departure as party leader of the Nobel Prize-winning John Hume. After another poor showing for the SDLP in May’s general election, McDonnell faced calls to step aside from colleagues and party grandees, including Hume’s former deputy, Seamus Mallon.
Eastwood is seen as a political lightweight in contrast with McDonnell, whose single-mindedness made him a combative figure in political battles. But increasingly wracked by personality disputes and still lacking ay all-Ireland strategy, the SDLP is desperate for change.
Mr Eastwood said his challenge was “not about personalities” but about reinvigorating the party which once held 24 seats in the assembly.
“Alasdair McDonnell has given his life to the SDLP - he’s a tremendous workhorse for his constituents and has done very well on reorganising the party,” he said.
“But we need to move beyond that and work towards a new generation with new ideas and vision.”
Mr Eastwood said he would pursue a “new brand of progressive nationalism”.
“One that is not defined by birth but based on radical and realistic proposals and policies for a better future,” he said. “We need to make Northern Ireland work for everyone, by rising to the challenge of reconciliation, driving economic growth and striving for a truly fair and shared society.”
The Derry man said those advocating a united Ireland in the future “must give our all to make Northern Ireland work today”.
“I want progressive nationalism to go much further on unity than the mere sloganising that until now has been trying to pass itself off as strategy,” he said.
“I want the SDLP to set out exactly what a new united Ireland will look like, and to set about convincing all the people of Ireland of the value of our convictions.”