I was on ‘Good Morning Ulster’ (note that title if you’re living in Donegal, Monaghan or Cavan) yesterday morning and Mark Carruthers asked me a question I could have answered either yes or no to, with near-equal honesty. The question was “The two candidates for the SDLP leadership are very different from each other, aren’t they?” I could have said yes, since one’s a woman and the other’s a man; one’s married and the other’s single (a point rammed home in today’s Irish News, which shows a head-and-shoulders shot of Margaret Ritchie and a sofa shot of Alasdair McDonnell with his wife and four young children); one’s got a seat in Westminster and the other hasn’t. In fact I said no, they weren’t that different, in that they share perhaps the most important common denominator: they’ve both been around for some thirty years. When a leader takes over a political party, s/he needs to bring a sense of freshness, of new beginnings. David Cameron was able to do that in Britain; Gordon Brown wasn’t. The fact is the SDLP are a party with the flood waters lapping at chest level (as distinct from the UUP, who are experiencing that damp sensation in the region of the Adam’s apple), so it’s going to take something truly imagination-grabbing to get the waters to recede, or even stop from rising. A bold bread-and-butter move might do it, like resolving the scandalous shortage of houses for Catholics in North Belfast, or a strategy that’d convulse the cross-border bodies into something resembling meaningful life. Will Margaret Ritchie (who’ll probably win) or Alasdair McDonnell (who could conceivably win) deliver such a bold move? I doubt it. Even worse if you’re an SDLP supporter: most of the people who’ll elect one or other of them doubt it too.
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