By Jack Holland
The decision of John Hume and his deputy, Seamus Mallon, to forsake the helm of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which they helped found 31 years ago, came suddenly and unexpectedly. The manner of their going characterized their years at the head of the SDLP’s aging hierarchy, with little or no consultation, like lords ruling fiefdoms. While Hume had been expected to resign as leader for the last year or more, his announcement on Sept. 12 took the party aback — he simply called in the assembly members and told them.
“The timing was surprising,” said Tim Atwood, the party’s director of development, one of only five full-time party officials. “There’d been talk of it for years, but it took everybody by surprise.”
On the other hand, Mallon’s decision was unexpected, party sources say.
According to Alban Maginness, the party assembly member for North Belfast who served for a time as the city’s first Catholic lord mayor, it was assumed that Mallon would stay on until the next assembly elections, in 2003.
“I was surprised he didn’t go for the leadership,” said Maginness, who is running for the post of deputy leader. Maginness believes Mallon would have won easily. “He would’ve enjoyed being his own man after being so long in Hume’s shadow,” he said.
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Regardless of whether or not the resignations came as a shock, however, nearly everyone agrees on one thing: the time for change at the top had come.
Just over a year earlier, the party produced an internal review which was heavily self-critical. It declared that the party was perceived as “tired, middle-class and lacking in vitality,” that it “lacked interest in grassroots politics.” It accused the leadership of having “pursued peace at the expense of party”.
Clearly, the SDLP was looking over its shoulder at the rapid progress being made by its rival in the nationalist community, Sinn Fein. But even after the internal review was leaked, some SDLP activists continued to downplay fears of Sinn Fein overtaking the party, or that the aging leadership of Hume and Mallon was making it less appealing to younger voters. Until, that is, last June, when the SDLP found itself, after the British general election, the second largest party in the nationalist community, with three seats at Westminster to Sinn Fein’s four.
The party denies, however, that this had anything to do with Hume and Mallon’s resignations.
“The Sinn Fein advance had no influence on the leadership change,” Atwood said, asserting that the change came about because of “a recognized need to reinvigorate the party. It needs a young, dynamic leadership.”
An analysis of the vote patterns from the June general election showed that more first-time voters in the nationalist community were opting for Sinn Fein. The SDLP is now setting out to try to halt that process. It is likely that Mark Durkan, the 41-year-old assembly member for Derry and a minister in the power-sharing executive, will be chosen to spearhead that drive as the new leader of the party when it meets to decide the matter this November at the annual conference.
The aim, said Maginness, is to make the SDLP “more attractive to younger people.” Both Maginness and Atwood believe that there is an opportunity to recapture the party’s formerly dominant position. Atwood said that one poll showed that the majority of Catholics support the party’s decision to nominate members to the boards for the new Northern Ireland police force, a move Sinn Fein has refused to make.
“There is a climate developing which is hostile to Sinn Fein’s obdurate stance on arms decommissioning,” Maginness said. “He also believes that continuing allegations about the IRA’s connection to a Colombian guerrilla group which has links to major drug trafficking networks is “tarnishing their image.”
Both Maginness and Atwood believe that there is still a role for the soon-to-be ex-leaders.
“The SDLP is the voice of reason in relation to what happened here,” Atwood said. “John and Seamus can talk about that trauma, about how a small number of individuals can create havoc. The SDLP will repeat its message of the last 30 years.” He said that when the new leadership is elected, the first place it will take its message is the United States — “as soon as we can see how we can share our experience of terror, and help.”