SDLP meet for the first time in four years with opportunities and battles ahead.

The SDLP met in Bellaghy for their first conference since 2018. The small crowd of around one hundred delegates gathered at the Seamus Heaney homeplace. This is the first time since 2018 that delegates have gathered together in person. Last time the conference was something akin to a wake as they reeled from a disastrous General Election in 2017. This time they meet with two MPs and a minister in government, but the party has challenges going into this election. Two seats are under real pressure and the polls don’t make for very happy reading. Mixed in seeing their rivals in Alliance surge and focus on Sinn Fein becoming the largest party.

This year it was a much smaller band of delegates that gathered. Although the mood was more enthused than Alliance a few weeks ago. The party platformed Cara Hunter, Dolores Kelly, Conor Houston, Matthew O’Toole and Paul Doherty throughout the day. The message was a mix of new people with experience. I did detect a change in message from the SDLP. Being criticised for months about over focusing on Sinn Fein and being too negative the party moved away from this slightly today and that was no more evident that the main act of the day, party leader Colum Eastwood.

Eastwood began his speech with a focus on the cost of living crisis;

For months now we have been talking about a ‘cost of living crisis’. But the truth is, it is far worse than just a crisis – it’s now an emergency. There isn’t a family that hasn’t been hit again and again by fuel, food and energy bills that are out of control. This is not just a crisis facing the most vulnerable, though they feel it most acutely.

He outlined that Westminster needs to act;

If this can’t be done in Stormont, we need to find a way in Westminster. Myself and Claire Hanna have already been engaged with legal services to see if we can immediately amend existing legislation to unlock this money. For once, the Secretary of State also needs to make himself useful and make a direct intervention to allow Ministers to access and spend this £300m. We will work every day to make this happen. But I can make this guarantee – if this is still not sorted by May – the very first priority of every single SDLP MLA elected, on day one of a new mandate, will be to get this money into people’s pockets.

There was also some focus on the DUP collapsing the Executive:

The problem is – the DUP obviously don’t care. They only care about their own selfish needs. They collapsed the Executive because they saw their own support collapsing. A desperation tactic – nothing more.

Then a swipe at both of the larger parties:

If we keep doing things the same way, we can never hope to break the cycle of crisis and collapse that now defines Stormont.And while I have been very clear that the DUP are solely to blame for the last few months, Sinn Fein can’t escape from their responsibility for the failures of the last 15 years. People are fair minded, but they won’t be fooled. They haven’t forgotten that not so long ago they collapsed our government for 3 years. The truth is that the DUP and Sinn Fein have a joint record for the last 15 years – and all it amounts to is a joint record of either bad government or no government.

HIs end message for why people should vote SDLP;

Go out and tell them that more SDLP MLAs means more for their community. Tell them that they have the choice of an SDLP team that will put them and their family first. That they can choose change by choosing this team. That they can choose politicians who will finally, finally put people first. Conference, let’s go out and make sure that people choose the SDLP.

Analysis

The party leadership delivered on stage. Nichola Mallon and Colum Eastwood both gave strong speeches. In terms of stage presence they delivered and in truth they always do. They have some good candidates who were profiled throughout the day and are promising prospects. However, the maths for success are still finely balanced. A few votes could see them lose two of their seats and not gain others. If the ball moves the other way they could see their 12 returned and maybe two or three more, which would take them back to levels they had in 2007. There is their opportunity and also their danger. Eastwood is leading from Westminster for the first time in an election. At the leaders debate he will be the only one not seeking election to Stormont.

Other questions remain, will they go into opposition or re-enter an Executive? Will they be able to halt Alliance on one side and Sinn Fein on the other? The small but enthusiastic band of supporters in Bellaghy today have a major fight on their hands. A little as 4,000 votes across five constituencies is what is to play for.

You can watch the full speech here

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