11 April 2006

Daily Ireland Editorial: Shuddering jolt of an SDLP collision

Daily Ireland

Editor: Colin O’Carroll

It’s unlikely that the mooted SDLP leadership challenge of former party vice-chairman Eddie Espie will come to much, but if nothing else the extraordinary rift that has opened up between the senior SDLP figure and party bosses is indicative of unease within the party at the direction it’s taking.
Mr Espie said this week that he’s unhappy at what he sees as the party’s failure to engage with people “on the streets”. He was joined in that analysis by former Belfast lord mayor and SDLP chairman Martin Morgan, who has backed Mr Espie’s leadership charge. Mr Morgan left the party in acrimonious circumstances, and he now rails against what he sees as the party’s failure to give him support as he maintained a lonely party presence on the streets of north Belfast during some of the worst days of parades-connected unrest.
While it’s undoubtedly the case that some SDLP members can be found working at the coal face of interface confrontation, it is also the case that for most SDLP members taking to the streets does not come easily. There is a perception within the party – a relic of its middle-class professional roots perhaps – that street activism is for agitators and extremists. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, because as we have seen in the past few years, decisive and courageous action by nationalist politicians on the front line has helped keep the lid on some very dangerous situations.
Mr Espie has placed the blame for the SDLP’s recent electoral setbacks firmly at the door of the leadership which he said eschewed “bold, imaginative and radical initiatives” in favour of policies that were “old, staid [and] blue-moulded”. In a particular barbed comment, he described some of his current colleagues as “Castle Catholics”.
Clearly what we’re seeing acted out here is the shuddering jolt of the collision between old-style SDLP politics and the neo-republican agenda that the party has decided it must follow if it is to claw back support. Just as many party members are aghast at the idea of standing at the PSNI lines in advance of flashpoint confrontations, so many are decidedly uncomfortable at having been ordered to wrap the green flag round themselves.
That a confrontation should develop between the party leadership and two members who might reasonably be described as being on the party’s radical side is not entirely surprising. When parties are forced to adjust and realign in response to electoral setbacks, people tend to get jumpy. Mr Espie and Mr Morgan are frustrated at the slow pace of change – there are probably more within the party who are concerned at how quickly that change is proceeding.
The SDLP has lost some very capable and high-profile people in recent months and years and it can ill-afford to lose people with the passion of Eddie Espie and the youth and vigour of Martin Morgan.

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