So soon after the election and it seems inappropriate to be discussing the next Deputy Leader of SDLP. Fearghal McKinney has just lost his seat. He was an excellent Deputy Leader.
The Deputy Leader should come from within the Assembly Party, now reduced to just twelve people, six of them going into the Assembly for the first time but I think it is fair to say that one of the newcomers Nichola Mallon,,has experience of Stormont as a Special Advisor and I count her as a potential Deputy.
There are two ways of looking at the role of a Deputy Leader. It might be a person most likely to succeed the Leader…or it might be the traditional pair of safe hands, a conduit between Leader and Party. It is not perhaps a good idea to be overtly ambitious or even to be seen as ambitious.
This is particuarly the case with SDLP, who have a young Leader (about 34). If Colum Eastwood is a successful Leader, he might be leading SDLP in twenty years. Alternatively SDLP might be locked into a rather unfortunate system where lack of success, general discontent and ambition (a constant jockeying for position) means that we have Leadership elections every five years.
Indeed a successful Colum Eastwood might be the candidate for SDLP for Foyle at Westminster if Mark Durkan gives up that role. But that is at least four years away and an ambitious Deputy Leader, elected this year will have to wait four years, possibly ten for a chance to be Leader.
I do think SDLP should be electing a Deputy Leader. I do not think SDLP should be electing the “Leader We Want After Colum”. The Party needs a few years to think about that and should not be handing the advantage to someone unproven at Stormont.
Apart from Colum, there are eleven MLAs….McGlone and Attwood are veterans from 1998. Durkan (a fellow Derry man and therefore unlikely) is from 2011. McCrossan and Hanna are from late 2015. The other six (Mallon, Mullan, McPhillips, McGrath, McNulty and Bradley) were elected last week.
The word on the street…the metrotextual street suggests it could be Nichola Mallon or Claire Hanna. Excellent people.
But part of the movement behind them is on the basis of GENDER BALANCE. The logic suggests if the Leader is a man, the Deputy must be a woman. So with just three women (Nichola, Claire and Sinead Bradley) in the Assembly Party, that is very limiting.
If there had been just one woman in the successful twelve…should she be returned uncontested for Deputy Leader? I dont think so…after all we supported Dan McCrossan in West Tyrone on the (correct) basis that the he was the right person (male or female). we are a Party based on FAIRNESS….the right person for the right job.
A straight contest between Nichola and Claire does not do either justice. It trivialises the Deputy Leadership contest as a choice between “Baby SDLP” and “Scary SDLP”. Yet the election of either would install them as favourite as “Leader After Colum”. We are not ready for that.
The best way to advance the ambitions of Nichola and Claire is to limit them…for a few years.
Arguably there is no reason why Fearghal McKinney should not continue as Deputy. After all it is primarily a Deputy Leader is a conduit between the Leader and the SDLP membership. If it has to be a MLA….then Patsy McGlone is the man for the job. Staying in office for (say) three years would give the Nichola, Claire and maybe Daniel a chance to make their case.
Claire is quite properly a favourite with the Bloggerati but that does not necessarily mean she is well known in SDLP branches way out west. She does have a perceived weakness. Her statement that no Party is a perfect fit, you join the one that fits best ….that might be a good one liner but may not play too well with men and women who find the Party ok …and are suspicious of Claire for customising the Party to appease her “progressive” friends outside the Party.
No…Claire might be the leading contender…but at this stage …gaffe-prone. She still has a bit to learn. Deputy Leader is not the place for on-job training.