I am typing this at noon on 25th June. I will not publish this post until after the result of the Selection Convention in South Belfast is known. As far as I know there are only two candidates for two positions so not exactly difficult to predict that Fearghal McKinney and Claire Hanna will be selected. Of course David McCann, Deputy Editor of Slugger O’Toole might have a different view.
It is important to emphasise that this is a Convention to choose two candidates to fight the Assembly Election in May 2016. It is NOT just about choosing a candidate to be co-opted into the Assembly to replace Dr Alasdair McDonnell, who is standing down from the Assembly.
Fearghal was himself co-opted to the Assembly in September 2013 as a result of the shock resignation of Conall McDevitt. He is close to the Party Leader and has done well as Spokesperson on Health.
Claire is in her early thirties, an excellent Councillor in the City Hall (eg her Living Wage Campaign) and has SDLP in her DNA….her mother Carmel was a MLA, her father Eamonn was General Secretary of the Party and hubby Donal is a former member of the Party Executive. The “news” tonight will be her deserved selection.
Notably David McCann (now Slugger O’Toole Deputy Editor) called the 2013 Selection Convention wrong. He thought Claire would beat Fearghal but as the victory margin 113-69 showed, nobody who knew anything about SDLP would have thought Claire would win that night.
To some extent tonight is the third and (hopefully) final instalment of SDLP Selection Conventions in South Belfast in less than six years. Claire suffered because of her close association with Conall McDevitt.
The mystique of Conall and his legacy is hard to judge. Voters tell me he was good and that they miss him. He was the “go to” SDLP politician chalking up appearances on UTV and BBCNI…popular with journalists and the so called “progressive” hangers on in Politics….South Belfast is after all, the base for “letsgetalongerism” and the political Metrotextuals from Platform for Change and Queens University.
Yet, while SDLP retained its second seat in South Belfast (May 2011), Conall must have been disappointed that he was not the vote winning asset that he and his supporters believed.
Ultimately Conall had in less than four years been co-opted to the Assembly, stood as Party Leader and emerged as the obvious successor to Alasdair before taking the Dublin train to the Dublin business job. There is, no doubt he invested a heck of a lot of time and effort in the SDLP in South Belfast. But the other side of the coin is that a lot of people in SDLP South Belfast invested a lot of time and effort in Conall McDevitt and might (in September 2013) have felt let down by his sudden departure.
So I expect that balance to be redressed tonight. The Westminster Election last month,showed that five of the six Assembly seats can be called. The sixth seat is always marginal but SDLP seem to have the advantage. Fearghal and Claire are the best available duo to fight the constituency next year. Certainly Claire touches parts of South Belfast….the so called “progressives” in a way that other SDLP people cant. And being on the ticket will be a setback to Greens and Alliance.
Yet the co-option precedents near the end of an Assembly term are not good. Marietta Farrell, co-opted for Patricia Lewsley in Lagan Valley and Pól Ó Callaghan, co-opted for Mark Durkan in Foyle deserved better.
Problems? Well…by any standard, Claire Hanna is a formidable and gutsy and media savvy politician. I first encountered her when she was on the SDLP Youth stall at a Queens University Freshers Day in September 2005.
She will rightly feel that she is now one of the Top Ten SDLP politicians in Norn Iron. But I think that it might be difficult for her to accept that she is the most junior MLA …#14 …on the SDLP benches. And best for her to stick to her allocated portfolio and not be pushing a broader “vision” until after she is (hopefully) elected along with Fearghal in May next year. There will be other younger SDLP people in the Assembly….more co-options….before the end of the current term.
Fearghal and Claire is a ticket that the members want.
To some extent, the selection of Fearghal and Claire is a distraction from something more interesting in South Belfast. Claire will likely stand down from the City Council and her co-opted replacement will be interesting.
EDIT……yeah I know I said I would not edit the post but worth pointing out that Slugger O’Tooles alleged cartoonist was not in attendance. Maybe he would have been tempted to portray a SDLP Selection Convention as a Nazi Rally. Anyway, Alan Meban was there and much given to describing it all as less than a selection and more a “coronation. Which is a tad tacky because the only other declared candidate Cllr Declan Boyle, very much an outsider withdrew from the contest. For the very understandable reason that BOTH of his parents have died in the past month.
Still Slugger does that kinda thing. It was a “coronation” because there was no “contest”. But a “contest” would have been portrayed as “division” in SDLP.
Anyway…..a pretty good morale-boosting night.