Picture by Stratagem Picture by Learning…
I saw an old friend on the TV last night: Sean Farren. He was a former grandee of the SDLP and a former colleague of mine at the Ulster University. I found him a pleasant, agreeable man, easy to work with. I can think of only one occasion when we talked – and disagreed – about politics, and that was when the subject of a united Ireland was raised. Sean figured it should be put on the back burner “except you want a civil war, because I don’t”. Well, neither did I, of course; but I didn’t think that was a reason for not mentioning the subject or burying it full forty fathoms deep for forty years.
Anyway, last night there was Sean on Portstewart’s marvelous beach, walking along with reporter Gareth Gordon from the BBC’s The View. The topic? The leadership of the SDLP. Who did Sean favour to lead tomorrow’s SDLP? Not Alasdair McDonnell, it emerged. Sean sang the praises, with no ifs or buts, of fresh, young Colum Eastwood.
I met Colum Eastwood once, when he was mayor of Derry. At the time I was struck by his youth, his friendliness and his fluency when addressing the audience. From what I saw, he looked like someone who had most of the qualities that Alasdair McDonnell lacks. If I were an SDLP voter, I would have given him my vote for new leader when the party meets in November.
However, things are not always what they appear. Someone who knows the young Derryman better than me told me two things about him the other day. As he told it, not only is Colum not terribly popular within the SDLP, he’s not terribly popular within the SDLP in Derry. For example, another SDLP grandee from Derry (yes, Virginia, I do like that grandee word – it says so much) – Pat Ramsay was reported as being something less than Colum Eastwood’s biggest fan. It was also suggested that Colum isn’t much given to the hard work that’s so much a part of politics.
I have no way of knowing if any of this is true. Perhaps Colum is the toast of the Derry SDLP– I liked him myself, as I say – even the toast of the entire SDLP. Barring Alasdair, of course, and maybe Fearghal McKinney. Maybe he will do a Jeremy Corbyn in November and emerge as top man, leaving Alasdair face down in the dust.
If he does, we’ll know two things. One is that the SDLP will have a better leader than the present one. Let’s face it, Mickey Mouse would run Alasdair a close second. And two, should Colum gain top spot in the SDLP, maybe hold back with the champagne for a while. In Alice in Wonderland there’s a character called the Cheshire Cat which is given to slowly fading from view, leaving its smile to vanish last. Alasdair McDonnell doesn’t do smile and Colum does it rather well. But November won’t really make a whisker of difference. The SDLP is doing a long goodbye; it’s a question of when, not if. The best Colum can hope for is a delayed demise.