Beyond the Good Friday Agreement?: SDLP conference 2018

09 April 2018 - by Denise McAnena

In the two years since the party last gathered together for a conference, the SDLP has lost two MLAs, three MPs, were on the losing side of the EU referendum and the Assembly has collapsed.

Amidst a week of speculation on the party’s future prior to the conference at Titanic Belfast, the focus for the day was on the SDLP vision for ‘new politics’ and a ‘new Ireland’.

John Dallat MLA led the first set of motions of the day on climate change which included a call for the decision on the Hightown Waste Incinerator to be overturned and the introduction of NI specific climate change legislation.

SDLP policing and justice spokesperson Dolores Kelly MLA used her conference slot to call for new legislation to tackle domestic abuse.

A panel discussion followed with Anne Moore from Save the Children, Irish Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin and former MLA and civil rights campaigner Brid Rodgers sharing their views on social justice with deputy leader Nichola Mallon.

The North Belfast MLA received high praise from her party colleagues for her passionate pursuit of highlighting the impact of welfare reform on the most vulnerable in society.

The conversation continued over lunch with Nichola Mallon MLA joining JRF Northern Ireland adviser Quintin Oliver, Unite the Union Regional Co-Ordinating Officer Davy Thompson and former Northern Ireland Commissioner for Employment and Skills Mark Huddleston to discuss solutions to poverty in Northern Ireland.

The latest JRF data published earlier this year shows that 370,000 people in Northern Ireland live in poverty. Mallon urged those attending the fringe event to challenge the SDLP and politicians to seek solutions.

She used her deputy leader speech at the conference to lay down a challenge of her own to the other political parties:

“We can once again use the Good Friday Agreement as a roadmap to reconciliation. That is my call today and that is my challenge to all the other parties. Do you genuinely stand behind the Good Friday Agreement as we still do?”

Mallon accused Brexiteers of a “selfish pursuit ‘of the Union’ at all costs” that leaves Northern Ireland “all poorer.”

Fine Gael adviser Jim D’Arcy, Professor David Phinnemore and Retail NI’s Glyn Roberts shared their views on Brexit alongside Claire Hanna MLA. D’Arcy told delegates that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has “an immense interest in the north” while SDLP Brexit spokesperson Hanna said that we need to use the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement to “protect us” from the impact of exiting the EU.

The afternoon progressed to discussion on health transformation with Mark H. Durkan MLA, inspired by the maritime setting, saying the health system in Northern Ireland has "gone off course and is real danger of sinking."

Party leader Colum Eastwood MLA prepared for his leaders speech by facing a packed fringe event audience in the upstairs Bridge room, where much of the buzz of the day was centred. He was joined by political commentators Alex Kane and Allison Morris for the Slugger O’Toole Q&A (also speaking at tomorrow night's Stratagem sponsored event).

The leader seemed relaxed and up for whatever the assembled party members and exhibitors had to throw at him. The Foyle MLA was prepared to face questions on a Fianna Fáil merger and the party’s stance on abortion but neither featured.

In his party leader address to the conference, Eastwood said he was “not going to follow the usual party conference routine of kicking lumps out of our political opponents” and made no mention of his main political opponents Sinn Féin.

He called for the re-establishment of the New Ireland Forum saying it is the best way to produce a “blueprint” for a “new Ireland” and “no referendum should be called until that work is done.”

On the future of the party he said: "In terms of re-alignment...I have been clear, we are up for those challenging conversations and we are up for the challenge of changing. In the time ahead, we will be true to ourselves and true to each other.

Will the young energetic leadership team in the form of Eastwood and Mallon, supported by the likes of Claire Hanna and Mark H. Durkan and stalwarts McGlone, Dallat and Kelly, deliver the renewal the party needs?