SDLP leader signals ‘new era’

Limavady SDLP councillor Michael Coyle says Alasdair McDonnell’s election signals “a new era”.

Alderman Coyle welcomed the election of the South Belfast MP, stating “four very good candidates” had stood for election. Dr. McDonnell saw off three other candidates at the SDLP conference to succeed Margaret Ritchie.

“I’m looking forward to change within the SDLP,” he said.

The new leader of the SDLP has set a target of 20 seats for the party at the next Assembly election arguing that the party has suffered at the polls in recent years because it had been too focussed on implementing the peace agreement.

“What has gone wrong is that we have put far too much of our energy into supporting the settlement, we have been supporting the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said. “That has been our focus, we have almost been hypnotised by it and we have neglected our grass roots. I want to go back to taking care of the grass roots.” Ald. Coyle said the new leader will take a new slant on leadership, talking about working with the grass roots and intending on visiting every local SDLP branch.

Ald. Coyle said there would be challenges ahead but nothing the SDLP can’t take on.

Mr. McDonnell told his party conference that his leadership of the SDLP will signal a new era for politics in Northern Ireland. He also accused Sinn Fein and the DUP of presiding over cuts demanded by Westminster.

The two parties, he said, were “bailiffs for the absentee landlords of the Treasury”.

He said the SDLP had put too much effort into providing a “comfortable place for other others around the Good Friday Agreement” to the point where his party had become “hypnotised” by it.

“We must face up to the reality that the agreement has been left by the DUP and Sinn Fein to run out of road,” Dr McDonnell added.

“In the hands of the DUP and Sinn Fein, it may provide basic political stability but it will not deliver the real progress that we want to achieve.” He also set out plans to set up a “small expert commission” which would be tasked with improving the organisation of the party. Poking fun at the characterisation of him as a “bull in a china shop”, Dr McDonnell said that he took the analogy as a “tribute to my reserves of energy and passion, tempered with wise counsel”.

He added that he wanted to “smash the myth that the SDLP’s fate is already sealed, that this party is somehow doomed to fail and die”.

“All that is wrong with us is that we don’t get enough votes - that is all,” he said.