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Speech by Alasdair McDonnell to SDLP Annual Conference, (6 November 2011)

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Text: Alasdair McDonell ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Alasdair McDonnell, then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), at the SDLP annual conference in the Ramada Hotel, Belfast, (Sunday 6 November 2011)


"Friends, delegates The last few weeks have been intense and fruitful for this party as we met and debated all across the north. I have come through this process with two abiding memories.

One is the absolute determination of people everywhere that this party will survive and that the values upon which the SDLP was founded will be carried forward into a new generation and into a new Ireland.

The other thing we heard everywhere we went, over and over again, was: "Why can't yous work together?" My answer is - Yes we can.

That is what I asked for and you have mandated and endorsed this weekend - not just a new leader - but a new leadership system. A collective system, that will ensure that the interests of the whole party will always come first.

All leaders need to be accountable, to have built-in checks and balances, even me.

I think it was during the last leadership contest that some commentator referred to me as a bull in a China shop. Well, friends and colleagues, I can tell you we are going to have a smashing time over the next few years.

I will play to my strengths - diplomacy is over-rated and I think I can leave the gimmicks and the media spin to others.

I will take the bull analogy as a tribute to my reserves of energy and my passion which, if tempered with wise counsel, can produce much.

With me - what you see is what you get - and what you will get is the action necessary to save this party.

So what will we smash? First of all I would like 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's all.

Now I'm a medical doctor, and I can tell you this is not an incurable condition, far from it.

As a matter of fact I have the prescription - and you have it too, I posted it to all the delegates.

This is a proven formula. We conducted the first successful field trials in South Belfast in 2005, and produced a greatly enhanced performance in 2010. Next I would like to smash the myth that Sinn Fein and the DUP are somehow invincible. They're not - they are just a bit better than us at getting votes.

But above all I want to smash through the limits to our own political vision.

We put so much into the Good Friday Agreement that we became hypnotised by it.

We must now face up to the reality that the Agreement has run out of road.

In the hands of the DUP and Sinn Fein, it may provide basic political stability but it will not deliver any more political progress.

Of course we value stability. Of course we will protect its institutional arrangements and such elements of powersharing and partnership as survive.

But we have to realise that the agreement will not deliver further normalisation or any sort of normal politics.

That would require real and concrete steps to combat sectarianism, real commitment to working for a shared future - and the DUP and Sinn Fein are just not going to do that.

Why should they? They have captured the Good Friday Agreement and remade it in their own divided image.

They may have kept most of its letter but they have totally emasculated its spirit, and torn out the heart of reconciliation. And from their point of view they are doing rather nicely out of it.

Why should these sectarian turkeys vote for a non-sectarian Christmas? What we have now is all we are going to get, is all there will be in the future, except there will be an added further pressure - there's going to be less money and a lot more poverty.

The valuable power-sharing element has been replaced by power carve-ups along the lines of a sullen ceasefire which they like to call peace.

Here's an indisputable fact: There were just nine so-called 'Peace Walls' when the first ceasefire came in. Now there are around fifty.

That is what those two parties would bequeath our children - unless we in the SDLP do something about it.

In line with the promise I made, I can tell you that the SDLP recovery plan starts right here and now.

I would like to meet as soon as posible with the newly elected Party Executive just to lay out the urgency of taking immediate measures for recovery.

I would like to meet with my Assembly colleagues to stress the importance of different groupings and organs within the party working together - and of course, to take expressions of interest in a shared leadership.

Then I'm going to walk around the hall here and collect copies of all the manifestoes and all the literature produced by people seeking election to the Executive so I can take them home and study them and steal as many good ideas as possible to add them to the bag of ideas that I have put before you this weekend. I would urge you to do the same.

And I would urge you to go back to your constituencies and call an emergency meeting of your branch to discuss these ideas, collective leadership and growth.

If you don't have a branch, consider starting one.

Next - convene a special meeting of your constituency association - if you have one.

At these meetings I would ask you and your fellow members to fix your minds on one thing. What you together need to do to ensure a massive SDLP recovery in the Assembly elections of 2016. You will not be doing this alone.

My next task is to meet with the Chief Executive and General Secretary to discuss the practicalities of holding a special SDLP renewal conference early in the New Year to discuss precisely such a recovery.

We need to hit the ground running.

We don't have years to debate or worry about our electoral performance.

Unless we quickly and clearly demonstrate that we have the will and ability to recover then our existing level of support will begin to drift away by the middle of next year.

The next 100 days are absolutely crucial. Together everyone needs to help and I am asking for that help now.

We must stick to the three-month schedule for the special renewal conference, and it must produce real andmvisible change in this party on the ground within another six months.

We must create political momentum.

We must be back on the road as an electoral force before the Assembly goes into summer recess.

That is an enormous task, so big that right now, no one can say where it ends. But I can tell you - it starts now. We are going to look for help in mapping out the task, in scoping and scaling the work that has to be done at and immediately after the conference.

That is why I will be consulting this week with the Chief Executive on setting up a small expert commission, a Task Force charged with bringing forward proposals to that conference for the development of an efficient and effective organisational structure.

Let me say immediately that it is electoral efficiency-getting SDLP votes into ballot boxes - that I have in mind as the appropriate benchmark.

We are going to look to our friends for help in making a better organisation. And the SDLP still has many friends.

We will ask our sister Social Democratic parties to help us identify best practice in Dublin, London & Brussels.

The Task Force will rely heavily on the organisational recovery plans drawn up by the Chief Executive two years ago. But we must be prepared to make sweeping changes and not be hidebound by existing structures where they don't work.

We can't go on with the fiction that there are lots of branches out there - there aren't.

What we really have got is a handful of active branches, usually built around a successful representative. A number which are being valiantly carried by a few hard-working individuals, And a great number of branches which hardly ever meet.

We must find new ways of embracing everyone who feels part of the SDLP family.

Membership should no longer be mediated solely though geographical branches.

We made the mistake before of missing a generation by failing to mentor young members and young candidates, by failing in succession planning at many levels, and we are paying dearly for it now.

Most important of all, I would ask the organisational commission to bring forward early proposals for a permanent mechanism of consultation with all members.

From my perspective this must involve a weekly programme of leadership visits to constituencies and branches combined with every available form of communications technology.

As a priority I will ask the Task Force to bring forward best-practice proposals for internal party discipline at all levels.

We need everyone pulling on the same rope in the same direction and I believe a collective leadership will be better placed to improve discipline. The special conference is going to have some difficult choices to make.

The Task Force may have to pose the question - does the local party have an absolute right to select a losing ticket? - and the special conference, in the context of Collective Leadership, may have to answer it.

But I am absolutely determined that decisions such as these will not be made in the mouth of the election. The SDLP is going to be prepared and battle-ready at all times.

We will have made our choices long before the date of an election. Our candidates will be known well in advance and be promoted as party representatives with appropriate party resources and backing.

That is how winning parties do it. That is how we are going to do it.

There are other things we must do in the first 100 days to signal that we are back in business. This Party will organise a conference on the economy. It's important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, we have established a track record in recent years, with the help of our policy team, producing well- written policy papers which have won praise from economists and other commentators and not a little imitation from our political opponents.

Secondly, there is no other source of political leadership on economic issues in the north at a time when so many people in business, in trade unions and in the community and voluntary sector are crying out for a strong lead.

But the most important reason is that we are Social Democrats and we must produce a Social Democratic response to what is happening - or more accurately not happening - in our economy and our political system.

Our economy is now in the grip of a Tory orthodoxy which would not give the time of day to social democratic notions of shielding the most vulnerable.

Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein will contest that orthodoxy.

They have no intention of putting it up to the Chancellor as Alex Salmond has done in Scotland.

The Tory plan is simple - squeeze the expenditure side and devolve the cuts.

Sinn Fein and the DUP are now just bailiffs for the absentee landlords in the Treasury.

There are cuts coming down the line the likes of which we have not seen for many a year. Cuts in jobs, cuts in schools, cuts in hospitals.

Sinn Fein and the DUP have no plan except to blame each other, London, or both if it suits them.

As Social Democrats we reject the notion that we can cut our way out of a recession.

As Social Democrats we reject the notion that providing jobs is always and only the business of the private sector, that the economy and society are somehow separate worlds.

Now is the time to put forward our own Economic vision. Now is the time to say that clever government spending can be used to boost the economy, to protect existing jobs and create new ones.

Now is the time to say that it is bad economics to push our most vulnerable people into further financial pain.

Not because we think the DUP and Sinn Fein will understand us, never mind heed us.

Not because we believe the Treasury would let them do these things even if they wanted to.

But because it is our job to make some sort of sense out of what is happening, to explain to people, to hard-working families, to businesses struggling to keep their heads above water, that it doesn't have to be like this, that there is another way, a better way.

And we have identified another way. That's what Social Democrats do, and that is why the SDLP will be holding this Special Economic Conference as soon as possible.

The other thing we will do within 100 days is to start to put our fund-raising onto a rational and sustainable basis.

The day of the big political donor is over, and state funding alone will not be our salvation.

In this, as in so many other areas, I want to see us returning to the democratic principles of voluntary effort, devolving fund-raising along with general control of this party to the ordinary members.

But we face immediate financial pressures and I intend to do something about that in the first hundred days.

There was a good opportunity this week.

A few days ago my odds at the bookies lengthened as I had predicted they would, and, as a joke, I suggested to the Chief Executive that he should gather up every pound he could find and bring it round to Paddy Powers. I will be reminding him later of what he could have won.

Friends, delegates, Even as we struggle with daily political and organisational pressures. Even as we work hard for our recovery. We must never forget why we are here - why we are doing it all.

The vision of the founding fathers of the SDLP was of a reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous New Ireland.

That is our vision too, but it is not just some pious aspiration for a distant future.

It is a place we firmly intend to go, where I intend to lead you. Our journey has already begun. Now it's about how we will we get there? It took the SDLP 30 years to achieve our primary aim of an Agreed Ireland, to stop the killing and stop the constitutional stalemate and its sectarian underpinning from poisoning the whole political atmosphere.

That was a long and painful journey, often appearing to have no end. But it did achieve an Agreed Ireland. But now our Agreed Ireland has been reduced to an Agreed Agenda for every Executive meeting, agreed beforehand between Sinn Fein and the DUP, Themselves Alone.

This is Wolfe Tone's worst nightmare, a government of Catholics and Protestants but absolutely no Dissenters.

Its greatest achievement and highest aspiration is what they like to call the Social Investment Fund, which Alex Attwood correctly characterised as a political slush fund.

£80 million of badly needed funding, which could do so much good, but will be doled out in slices to favoured, compliant community groupings on each side of the divide, a million pounds for your side of the house, a million for mine over here.

My friends, We will not live indefinitely in this political dead end. The other bit of the Agreed Ireland, the bit that Sinn Fein prefers not to talk about, is the Principle of Consent which they too signed up to.

In a nutshell, we can only get rid of partition when a majority of voters in the north agree. That means the greatest political currency in this debate is persuasion. It means we must persuade for unity.

And who is to be persuaded? Well, it must be unionists, mustn't it? There is certainly not much point heading off to London to tell the British government to be a persuader for unity, as others have done.

There is certainly not much point convening the Irish Diaspora in New York for unity.

So who are the qualified persuaders? They certainly will not be those who found themselves confronted daily with their ugly past during the Presidential election. No - this is a job for the SDLP.

And along the way we will not be trying to turn unionists into nationalists.

We have created, and will continue to nurture, an atmosphere where it is possible to sit down with many strands of unionism and tease out where their best long-term interests lie.

We have been doing a little of this in South Belfast and elsewhere and the debate, private and considered, is very promising.

We must now spell out what a united and New Ireland might actually look like.

Look at what our policy document says:"We believe that all the rights, protections and inclusion that nationalists have sought within Northern Ireland while it is in the United Kingdom must equally be guaranteed to unionists within a New Ireland."

Not many unionists know that is our position. Actually, not many nationalists know it either.

The time has now come to sell our vision actively, north and south. SDLP proposals for a Forum on Irish Unity which we developed after the 2007 election were basically side-tracked by the economic downturn and the financial crisis in the south.

Under my leadership they would be given the highest priority again. Not least because they are of immediate relevance for the political direction which devolved government in the north must take over the next decade.

Based on our longstanding co-operation with all the parties of democratic nationalism I will seek to sign up partners for unity based clearly on the principle of consent and the practice of persuasion.

Ahead of us looms 2016, when two important events will take place.

Firstly, there will be a great effort by those who seek to revise and rewrite our recent history - to sweep murder under the carpet - finally and forever. They will not succeed. Their effort is of course already under way, but there is plenty of evidence that victims and indeed thembroad electorate in the south are not going to buy it, now or in the future.

The second event will be the Assembly elections, which I believe will be a turning point for this party, for the Assembly and indeed for the north as a viable political, economic and administrative entity.

By then I believe that the narrow two-party Politics of the squeezed Block Grant will be showing signs of extreme stress. It will be increasingly petty, increasing sectarian and increasingly hopeless for all our people.

But by then I believe the SDLP will be a fully battle- ready electoral machine with an already proven track record of activism on the ground and in councils across the north.

By then we will have pencilled in the contours of a new, united Ireland. We will have engaged with a wide range of opinion in the north and in the south. We will have listed the obstacles to unity and set them against the incentives. We will have better explored the potential of an all-island economy and of bringing all our public services together.

When Block Grant Politics finally hits the buffers, we will have explored the alternative - and presented it to the electorate. The major roadblock on the road to a New Ireland is the electoral weakness of the SDLP.

Let us first cure that, You and Me, and we can continue our journey to a New Ireland"


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