To be very clear, this is NOT a comeback. I will not be resuming my Blogging career. I am enjoying retirement far too much. This post is in response to a request and also to tie up some loose ends.
When I retired on 11th August, I closed the Blog. This unfortunately meant nobody could actually view the Archive. That was not what I intended….I intended the Blog stay open to facilitate anyone who was interested in things that I have said over the past five years. So a few weeks ago, I changed the settings so the Blog is still “open”.
I digress. A few weeks ago, I was sent a link to a post on Slugger O’Toole by Kris Nixon (aka Barman) regarded by some as a leading blogger in the Belfast Metrotextual Mutual Admiration Society.
The subject of the post was Claire Hanna, SDLP MLA for South Belfast. It was really a non-post that observed that Claire is on TV a lot, the post of Deputy Leader in SDLP is vacant and Claire might be a candidate.
In other words, it was a Dog Bites Man story …too obvious to be interesting. Surprisingly when I read it on Slugger, there was already over one hundred comments. I did not read any of the comments but was tempted to comment myself but I have not made a comment on Slugger since May 2015 and I have no idea what my password is.
There are some events …ie Claire Hanna on the TV ….that are simply too obvious to blog about. The story here is not so much “More Than Meets the Eye” as “Less Than Meets the Eye”. And sometimes the Eye misses what is really going on.
There is really no special significance in Claire being on TV a lot. The BBC and UTV studios are in South Belfast…in Claire’s constituency. If the case can be made that the previous Deputy Leader, Fearghal McKinney was the SDLP man most likely to be on TV with Mark Carruthers and Paul Clark….then it has to be said that Fearghal was also a MLA in South Belfast. Of course the previous Deputy Leader, Dolores Kelly also appeared a lot …she lives in Upper Bann, less than 25 miles from TV studios…..but the man who could not be beaten out of BBC and UTV studios was Conall McDevitt….surprisingly BBC and UTV never charged him rent. Conall was Deputy Leader but of course represented South Belfast.
So….Claire Hanna’s frequent TV appearances are as much to do with South Belfast as “Deputy Leader”. Kris Nixon speculates that Claire is the leading candidate to be Deputy when the post is contested.
Again…….how surprising is this? I suspect that a straw poll of SDLP watchers would arrive at the same conclusion. Which tends to invite the question ….why is Claire’s TV appearances such a big story.
Logically when SDLP elect a new Deputy Leader, it will be at the next full Conference. And logically, it will be one of the twelve MLAs currently at Stormont. Of these, only four were in Stormont at or before 2011. Colum Eastwood is Party Leader, Mark H Durkan can be ruled out as a Leader and Deputy from the same constituency (Derry-Foyle) would not work. Patsy McGlone is on the Speakers Panel and that requires bi-partisanship. Alex Attwood is certainly a possibility but he is maybe a senior statesman in SDLP rather than a contender.
Two MLAs Daniel McCrossan and Claire Hanna were first co-opted to the Assembly in 2015 and the other six were all elected in 2016. With respect to the other five, Nicola Mallon has a seniority as she was a Special Advisor (to Mark H Durkan).
Factkor in that “gender balance” was a theme in the 2015 Deputy Leadership which Dolores lost to Fearghal and it is almost certain that the next Deputy Leader will be a woman….Claire or Nichola.
Both are star turns…Nicola is quietly effective while Claire is more…energetic.
I would think that Nicola sees her future at Stormont and therefore more suited to the role of Deputy Leader. Claire might well have had one eye on being SDLP candidate at the Euro Elections in 2019. She is a former International Secretary of the Party and has good European connexions and fought a good campaign in the EU Referendum. Brexit means that there is unlikely to be Euro Elections and thats a career path that is now closed to Claire. I am not suggesting she would win a European seat, merely stating the obvious …she would be a very credible candidate.
Likewise any aspiration to succeed Alasdair McDonnell as SDLP MP for South Belfast is not very realistic with boundary changes creating a new constituency which SDLP will have difficulty holding.
This means any future for Claire within Politics is at Stormont. Unless of course she leaves frontline politics and goes to a Quango.
SDLP has reached a curious compromise with itself. The buzz-phrase is “progressive nationalism” but nobody seems to know what it means. To me, it looks like a band-aid to cover the nationalist and “progressive” wings of SDLP.
Famously SDLP was formed by Civil Rights activists (Hume, Cooper, O’Hanlon), Republican Labour (Fitt, Wilson), Nationalist (Currie), Liberal (Wilton) and Norn Iron Labour (Devlin). …and the organising of NDP activists. There were always arguments of course….Wilson was murdered by loyalists in 1973, Devlin and Fitt left the Party after a decade or so. But in general, SDLP seemed pretty co-ordinated in its best years. But as the Party declines, the fault lines are starting to show.
Claire self-identifies as a “progressive”. Well I am sure most people say that about themselves. But other people say it about Claire. But those other people also say it about themselves.
Conall McDevitt (former SDLP MLA for South Belfast) praised the election of two “progressive women” in South Belfast…ie Claire Hanna and Claire Bailey (Green Party). That would be the same Conall McDevitt who stood for the Party Leadership in 2011 and Claire was one of his cheerleaders.
To some extent, Conall is the forgotten man. He resigned from Stormont in 2013 (and Claire lost out to Fearghal McKinney inthe co-option convention)….a result which did not surprise any SDLP watchers but surprised Dr David McCann of Slugger O’Toole.
Since 2013, Claire has been one of the leading critics of Alasdair McDonnell, succeeding him in the Assembly as a co-option about a year ago and successfully backed Colum Eastwoods leadership campaign. She has also been succeeded in Belfast City Hall by Donal Lyons…who is her husband.
Yet despite having impeccable SDLP credentials….her father is a former General Secretary of the Party and her mother a former MLA and Executive minister as well as having a husband on the City Council (he is also a SDLP staff member)….any Deputy Leadership campaign would have to involve people outside the Party rather than within the Party.
Why do I say this?
South Belfast is a very important SDLP constituency. Perhaps more members than any other and it will carry a lot of weight at any Deputy Leadership election. But it would be a mistake to think that all SDLP folks in South Belfast will support Claire. The McDonnell-McKInney faction is as strong as the Hanna faction. And no SDLP Leadership campaign is complete without Claire covered in stickers supporting the “progressive” candidate. She is somewhat the face of “change” or “rock the boat” within SDLP. It wont always play well with the Party as a whole.
While Claire has outreached to a demographic in South Belfast….self styled progressives , students,academics, “economic unionists” and refugees from the failed Platform for Change nonsense….she really needs to nurture SDLP members in (say) Ballycastle, Maghera, Derrylin and Camlough.
These people in North Antrim, Mid Ulster, Fermanagh and South Armagh have paid a high price for SDLP membership and for the electoral consequences of division within the Party.
Claire is good with a catchphrase. Her onservation that people choose political parties on the basis of “best fit” rather than “perfect fit” can go down well when talking to Queens University or chatting to ex-pat Labourites from Australia, USA and England but back in Ballycastle, Maghera, Derrylin and Camlough, there are people who are totally and absolutely SDLP.
When trying to sign up new members at a QUB or UU “Freshers Week”, there is a choice …ask people to join to further the values of SDLP or ask people to join and use SDLP as a vehicle to bring SDLP in a “progressive” direction.
SDLP Youth is really “SDLP Students”, not representative of the Party as a whole or even young people as a whole. It is a mixed blessing. They were the footsoldiers in the Equal Marriage and EU campaigns and thats to their credit…but there is a narcissistic silliness about the youth wing. They need to abandon the Facebook postings of “being blocked”, too much nonsense about support for “progressive” campaigns for Democrat candidate in the 4th Michigan Congressional District, the latest Social Democrat superstar in Denmark and endless selfies with Irish Labour feminists in An Dáil.
That’s all bollix. There is more to Politics than a degree, a Twitter account, a selfie-stick and a block booking for the Stephen Nolan show. It is unreal. It is Fantasy Politics.
To this end, SDLP needs to have a quiet word with young activists who are involving themselves in the “Repeal the Eighth” (ie abortion reform) campaign in the Republic of Ireland. Of course they can act as individuals but SDLP remains a “pro-life” Party. Whatever the merits of the campaign, it is counter-productive. Thats the line that Claire needs to walk in South Belfast….and with the SDLP as a whole.
To emphasise, I no longer give a tinkers curse about elections in 2019 and 2020 but I wish SDLP well as they have selflessly represented me and mine. But the Party is riddled with inefficiency and an amateurism that betrays those it seeks to represent.