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Editorial: Changing of the guard

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

This year’s conference of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which took place last weekend, was billed as marking the end of one era and the beginning of a new. With the stepping down of John Hume and Seamus Mallon from the party leadership, there was no doubt that the old era has ended. The men who founded and then shaped the SDLP for 31 years have at last given way to others in the form of Mark Durkan and Brid Rodgers. The old era is history, and its nature is easy to delineate. But what the shape the new era will take is always much more difficult to predict.

The new party leader, 41-year-old Durkan, who served as minister for finance in the power-sharing government, did his best to demarcate the change. In a well-received speech he strove to mark out the differences between his party and their rivals for the Nationalist vote, Sinn Fein. He also announced that he had accepted an invitation from the Unionist Party to address one of its meetings — the first time that an SDLP leader has done so.

So, in his speech, he took on the main challenges the party must face: the rising tide of Sinn Fein support within Nationalist areas, particularly among young people, and the need to reach out to the Unionist community.

Both challenges will be severe tests of the new leadership. The SDLP has labored under the irony that Sinn Fein has benefited far more from the peace process than the SDLP, despite the fact that the peace process was a triumph of SDLP politics over those of the republican fundamentalists. How to make that point is the problem. Durkan resorted to reminding the audience of the Provisionals’ militaristic past:

“Our only force is the force of argument. We have no army . . . by politics we stand,” he declared.

This line, however, his its pitfalls, especially if as it appears the SDLP is out to win over the vote of the younger generation. If it is seen as carping endlessly about the bad old days, it will risk alienating young people who are attracted by the dynamism of Sinn Fein and do not want to dwell on what it was like 10 years ago.

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The SDLP might find the second challenge easier, if it can make the Ulster Unionist Party realize that the kind of changes pushed for decades by the SDLP are the kind that Unionists too can embrace without threatening their identity. That way a true commonality of interest can be created that will serve both communities well and ensure a smooth-running government.

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