On Sunday Alasdair McDonnell, the member of parliament for the Social Democratic and Labour Party from South Belfast, was elected the new leader of the party beating out three other candidates including Deputy Leader Patsy McGlone and Environmental Minister Alex Attwood. His tenure got off to a rough start when he decided to give an acceptance speech from a lecturn without notes using a teleprompter (autocue in UK speak) that was badly positioned so that he was blinded by the glare of the lights and couldn't read his speech. Some commentators took this as a bad omen.
McDonnell vowed to make the party competitive with Sinn Fein for the first time in years. Because of his impressive vote-winning performances in South Belfast he was chosen leader over his rivals. But the party has a basic problem with policy and strategy. It wants to attract Protestant members, but most members favor keeping the support for a united Ireland as part of its platform. If it does keep this it will find very few Protestants willing to join a Catholic party. And if it abandons this goal, it may lose many supporters to rival Sinn Fein without attracting many Protestants as compensation. Sinn Fein has stolen the SDLP's policies--plagiarized them without citation--and is better organized and sexier. The Shinners can persuade many young voters that it was the IRA's terrorist campaign that won all the concessions in equal status and power sharing that nationalists now enjoy in Northern Ireland. For the SDLP to convince them that the "armed struggle" delayed the delivery of these prizes rather than delivered them is a hard sell to people who did not live through The Troubles.
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness may have also stirred up trouble for the SDLP as well as for his own party by going South to contest the Irish presidential election and then delivering the prize to Labour Party candidate Michael D. Higgins from unofficial Fianna Fail candidate Sean Gallagher. This might lead FF to enter Northern Ireland and start organizing branches in nationalist areas. This would strip voters from the SDLP in elections as more nationalist non-Sinn Fein voters choose to vote for an all-Ireland party rather than one that is merely committed to a united Ireland. Here is an exploration of that argument.
The SDLP has a choice between temporarily surrendering ministries to the rival Sinn Fein parties by going into opposition, possibly in conjunction with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Party, or permanently playing second fiddle to Sinn Fein. Here is the argument for the latter course. The fact that the SDLP was unable to cooperate with the UUP when both were the leading parties under the Good Friday Agreement from 1998 to 2001 bodes ill for future cooperation in opposition. Most SDLP voters gave their lower preference votes to the rival Republicans rather than to their unionist allies in the UUP. Likewise UUP voters gave their lower preference votes to the DUP rather than to the SDLP. Sectarianism still runs strong in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has called on the UUP to dissolve itself and form a new party with the Tories. This was probably a deliberate way of forcing the UUP to cut its links to the Conservatives before the 2014 election. This will possibly make the UUP more receptive to a joint opposition strategy with the SDLP and Alliance.