I am not sure that the Slugger O’Toole headline “Claire Hanna Resigns from SDLP Whip at Assembly…” is entirely accurate.
It seems that Claire will no longer be attending SDLP Assembly Party meetings and has resigned her position as SDLP Spokesperson on BREXIT. She remains a member of the Party.
All of which looks like a bit of a sulk rather than a major crisis for SDLP.
Claire has SDLP in her blood. Her father was the General Secretary of the Party. Her mother, Carmel was a MLA and a minister in the Stormont Executive. Her husband Donal Lyons was co-opted to succeed Claire on Belfast City Council.
Indeed during the leadership election at the SDLP Party Conference in 2011, pregnant Claire jokingly wore a “Conall McDevitt” sticker on her “bump”. So she does not lack commitment.
Of course McDevitt was defeated in 2011 but Claire successfully backed Colum Eastwood in the 2015 leadership contest.
I doubt if she or the other 171 delegates who voted for Colum would have thought that just over three years later, Colum would be leading SDLP into a partnership with Fianna Fáil.
Does this represent SDLP turning away from its “social democratic” roots to embrace a centre-right party in the Republic of Ireland? Or is it more fair to say that the Party has given up on an internal solution and cash-strapped since losing three Westminster seats and against the new dispensation of BREXIT, is trying a new approach?
As always, there is no clear answer.
To be fair to Claire, she makes a good point that it is a bad idea for SDLP to have an exclusive relationship with one party in the South.
I have always assumed Claire to be ambitious. So the steps she takes now will be careful.
Clearly as the only MLA not to attend the launch of the new Partnership, and while some certainly have misgivings, she is somewhat isolated. True, if this partnership is a failure, she can shout “I told you so” loudly. But with the partnership backed by 70-30 and some losers already left, then she seems to have a small base on which to build a leadership challenge.
Now that Britain is leaving the European Union (or are they?) there will be no European elections in the summer. I think Claire might have been SDLP candidate and as demographics are changing, there was certainly a chance (a long shot) that she could have picked up the third seat.
Likewise, the South Belfast Westminster seat might well have been a target for Claire. But Alasdair McDonnell lost that seat in 2017 and with it the advantage of SDLP incumbency.
I firmly believe that SDLP has a shot at winning South Belfast back…or as I feel tonight SDLP HAD a chance of taking the seat.
Look at 2017 figures….DUP 13,000. SDLP 11,000. Alliance 8,000. Sinn Féin 7,000. Green 2,000. UUP 1,500.
So Emma Little-Pengelly won thru the collapse of the UUP vote and the division in what might be called the “progressive” vote. I am not in favour of electoral pacts but it must be clear that the best placed candidate to take the seat would be SDLP, especially in the context of BREXIT.
Arguably Claire would have a better chance of taking the seat as an Independent but I don’t think that SDLP should stand aside.
Claire Hanna is reputed to be the SDLPs best asset but this is the judgement of the insiders…the journalists and the bloggers. It is not necessarily the view of real people who live more than 20 kilometres from UTV and BBC Studios.
Certainly she is good with words. But as she said being in a political party is a bit like choosing a husband/wife. Its not about a perfect fit, its about a good fit. This seems to be the place where Claire Hanna finds herself.
But increasingly, this looks like a bigger problem than just one person. Elections for all councils take place in just three months.
Belfast looks like a real problem. SDLP had seven seats at the last election but will go into May with just four seats. Pat Convery in North Belfast, Declan Boyle (South Belfast) and Kate Mullan (South East Belfast) have been expelled from the Party. And at least three candidates Donal Lyons (Claire Hannas hubby) and Tim Attwood and Brian Heading are on the Hanna “wing” of SDLP.
Increasingly I don’t think that the SDLP problem is BEFORE the Council Elections. Whatever misgivings SDLP members have about Fianna Fáil, they stand a better chance of getting elected with the SDLP logo beside their name on the ballot paper.
At the end of the day, there is no quick fix to SDLP problems. But Colum Eastwood has at least chartered a direction. The Party might need to take one step back to eventually take two steps forward.