I wont be able to travel to Derry for the SDLP Conference tomorrow. It promises to be a Conference with a difference. It is in Derry, spiritual home of the Party and the constituency of new Leader, Colum Eastwood.
I have never been in St Columbs Hall. It feels significant that the Conference is not being held in a hotel…I remember my first Annual Conference in 1973 in the Europa Hotel in Belfast. And in a strange way, it felt like we were breaking down barricades…people like me from West Belfast and others from Derry, Coalisland and Newry…in this fancy hotel.
Recent conferences seem to alternate between the Ramada in South Belfast and the Armagh City Hotel. And the ambience in a fancy hotel might be different. Significantly the Conference will concluse with a “social” rather than the overly expensive “Dinner” in the fancy hotels.
It will be a different sort of Conference. Family and friends given the same status as members. A Movement as much as a Party. In other words a bigger version of the meeting at Oxford Island, Lurgan, earlier this week.
A familiar enough pattern. A walk-around The town centre before going to meet sixth form pupils at St Ronan’s School and meeting the Party and friends later in the evening.
Colum seems ideally suited to this. Previous Leaders have been Westminster -based which meant that most of a week was spent in London. Little left for nurturing the Party, minding a constituency AND recreation.
Colum is therefore able to visit a lot of constituencies and still get home to Derry.
People who blog are like spectators at a football match. No balls are required to watch a football match…or blog about a party conference. I cant say I am overly anxious what Alan Meban and David McCann of Slugger O’Toole will make of it all. On their previous record …not much. But at least it is good to see them get this far away from the Metrotextual bubble which is probably a more natural habitat for them than St Columbs Hall in Derry.
I am sorry to miss the Conference. The atmosphere around a Conference is actually much more interesting than the set-pieces.
But there will be set pieces. The Party political broadcast, the introduction of the candidates who will contest the Assembly Election in just eight weeks time. As far as I know, only East Belfast and North Down are the only constituencies without a publicly announced candidate.
The key thing seems to be that SDLP is re-calibrating. There seems to be genuine goodwill towards SDLP. The cliché that there is a “good reception on the doorstep” seems to be true. People seem pleased and even surprised at the visibility. New people like Claire Hanna and Nichola Mallon are in TV studios and people like Roisin Lynch, Richie McPhillips and Sinead Challinor are in the local papers….visibility. And Feargal McKinney and Dolores Kelly perceived as doing well in their portfolios.
I am knda happy.