A Stormont deal entitled A Fresh Start is reached. The SDLP also gets a potential reboot, by way of a new leader. Jennifer O'Leary assesses the challenges the party faces.
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Previously at Stormont...
..deadlock and political stalemate.
If Stormont was performing effectively and efficiently,
you could forgive a lot of its failings.
It's not. We can't even use the powers that we've got.
There's no momentum now. Everything is static.
Nothing's been done.
There's no objective.
A stand-off over welfare reform, paramilitaries
and dealing with the past,
brought the two leading parties to an effective standstill.
But today we got a deal,
yet another attempt to make power-sharing work.
I know that there will be those from other political parties
who will say that this is a two-party agreement.
They say that as if it's a bad thing.
We have attempted to reflect their comments as well as our own views
in the agreement that has been reached.
This agreement represents an opportunity for a new start,
an opportunity which we must all grasp.
This is a good day for Northern Ireland, and it marks a fresh start
for Northern Ireland's devolved institutions.
Ten weeks in the making but only a partial deal...
..the vexed issue of dealing with the past put on ice.
The SDLP had spent the weekend electing a new leader,
their youngest ever.
No party at Stormont has taken greater pride
in the Good Friday Agreement and the institutions it created
than the SDLP.
But neither have any of the main parties seen such a decline
in their share of the vote.
Power-sharing today has got a fresh start,
but the SDLP now fear they find themselves on the outside looking in.
We were given 45 minutes to look at this supposed deal,
and then we were asked to go into an executive meeting and support it.
Tonight on Spotlight, we assess how the party
widely regarded as the architect of power-sharing,
moved to the margins,
and ask if their new young leader can reverse the trend.
32 years old and SDLP activist
while still a teenager.
We've had stumbling blocks in the past and we've always got over them.
This autumn he launched a daring bid to topple his party leader
and seize control.
For his supporters it was a chance to halt over a decade of decline
for the party.
It will take time. I have that time.
Join with me in making this party win again. Thank you.
A fresh face, certainly,
but he faced a formidable task to unseat Alasdair McDonnell,
a man who time and again defied the odds and pulled victory
from the jaws of predicted defeat.
McDonnell, Alasdair -
For the young challenger, momentum would be key.
Last Wednesday morning,
Eastwood headquarters, Londonderry.
The leadership election was just days away and the strain was showing.
-Hi, Rory. Nice to meet you.
-Good to meet you.
-How are you doing?
-Rory Farrell helped run the campaign.
So, where's Colum at the minute?
-Colum is next-door making phone calls.
He's been doing that for a couple of weeks now,
so it's going to be close.
But he's put the work in in the last load of weeks
and he's made a lot of phone calls, and he's met a lot of people,
and we've been travelling throughout the north,
-Oh, he's here.
-..is ready to lead that change.
-How are things?
-Nice to meet you. How are you doing?
-How's the campaign going?
-It's going well.
So, is this the centre of operations for most of the phone calls?
No, this is my constituency office.
The challenger set out to try to sell his vision
to the party faithful face-to-face.
But some were refusing to meet.
I've got more phone calls to make, lots more phone calls.
I think we've spoken to almost everybody or we've at least tried to speak to everybody.
We've sent literature to everybody. We've sent e-mails to everybody.
We're just trying to ensure that the people who've said
they're voting for us, are going to vote for us.
We've got a big team working with us.
It's not just me.
Right, so you've got the Castlewellan tonight.
You're meeting Laura King in a couple of branches in South Down.
It's the sharp end of politics, a plot to topple the leader.
There's a few e-mails on there that need...
Eastwood spoke of his determination to run a positive campaign.
But really it was a coup.
The contenders said it was a chance to shake up the party,
but some observers have been less than electrified.
You never hear steel clashing on steel, you know,
as ideas are argued out.
What you hear is putty plopping on putty.
It isn't going to damage anybody, is it?
But it's not going to enlighten anybody, it's not going to...
The SDLP arguments don't produce sparks with a chance of catching fire.
So there'll be quite a tense party conference at the weekend, will there?
It'll be exciting!
It'll be tense for Colum and Alasdair
-and their respective teams.
But for the wider membership, it'll be really interesting.
There's a lot about motions and debates,
but there's a contest here to decide the future of the party.
You look tense.
I look tense? Oh, sorry.
-I'm totally relaxed about it all!
The next few days would be crucial.
Colum Eastwood and his team, they really have been
on the phone the whole time.
And I suspect that they are more tense than they may be admitting to,
because it really is a struggle and nothing is ever certain in politics.
The leadership election opened up a debate that had been simmering
within the party for years.
Once the largest nationalist party,
its vote has been in decline for over a decade.
To some observers the reason is clear,
the SDLP is having something of an identity crisis.
The ideological identity of the SDLP is not entirely clear to me.
There's some good, solid people in the SDLP...
Of course, they've got nothing distinctive to offer anybody.
They are not Sinn Fein, they are not associated with violence,
they are not Unionists, so what are they? What are they?
They're far too respectable, far too timid.
And you know, far too uncertain of its place in Northern society.
And there's more bad news.
A leaked internal report recently predicted even more losses
in the next Assembly election.
The image persists of an ageing rock band with
their best work behind them.
-We want them to join together...
-..on this stage!
The party enjoyed a starring role in helping to bring all sides to
a power-sharing arrangement, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble and the SDLP's John Hume
were celebrated for delivering power-sharing.
But it was all downhill from there.
The SDLP are at a very low ebb.
They have lost since 1998 roughly about 90,000 votes.
Roughly a third of that has gone to Sinn Fein, and the rest,
from what we can see from the data, are just staying at home.
So apathy is really the SDLP's biggest problem at the moment.
Sinn Fein has since overtaken the SDLP.
A failure to attract a younger vote just one of the reasons for decline.
I think once the Good Friday Agreement was agreed,
once devolution was back up and running, it was kind of seen as job done.
That was it.
But the SDLP has hit a problem some say is affecting
all parties at Stormont.
Having achieved power-sharing, what next?
Central to the party's woes,
the criticism that the party still labours under the shadow
of the generation of party leaders who built peace.
I had this taken the first election. That was 1969.
We were married in 1960.
(55 years ago!)
'John Hume, who is well known in the houses that he visits.
'He has, in effect, become the leader of the civil rights campaign in Derry.'
Pat canvassed on the streets with her husband.
The man who became leader, Nobel Laureate
and driving force of the SDLP, John Hume.
I hope the committee, as a body, has among its membership,
people of every political persuasion.
The chairman of...
'He stepped down as leader in 2001.'
The Liberal party have members...
The Labour Party have members...
'He still lives in Derry with Pat.'
The legacy he created dominates the party to this day.
And that's when they had the big sit-down, in Laburnum Terrace.
Within 20 minutes or so, a group of Saracens came along
and the major got out and he said, "Up!"
And John said, "No! I'm not moving."
And with that, he just turned to the Saracen and said, "water canons".
Hume was a member of the Catholic community, but had been
discriminated against and largely excluded from government.
In 1970, he and a handful of campaigners founded the
Social, Democratic and Labour Party.
But Northern Ireland was already sliding deeper into conflict.
SCREAMING AND YELLING
I feel very sad when I look back and I think of the years
down through the '70s, for example, during the power-sharing Executive.
Power-sharing was in place, One Man, One Vote was in place.
The wherewithal to gain more by nonviolence was there.
And yet, the IRA continued violence...
The story could have been different.
It was 24 years before anything else could happen.
24 years of mayhem.
GUNFIRE SHATTERING GLASS
Almost all the social advances that have been made in the last 40 years
were made in the days of the civil rights movement.
The end of gerrymandering,
the institution of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
Legislation against the religious discrimination,
the abolition of the B-Specials, that disarming of the RUC,
all of those things were met by the early '70s.
None of them was achieved,
none of them was achieved by the armed struggle of the IRA and yet,
and yet, at the end of the day, it is the IRA
and its political wing which has reaped the benefit.
# We shall overcome... #
Central to the SDLP's problems is the view that the party has effectively
lost ownership of an equality agenda, the fight for civil rights.
# Oh, deep in my heart... #
But it's a cause that has brought electoral reward
for its rivals in Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein are rewriting their past.
And that is why they've convinced quite a lot of people that they've fought...
That the IRA fought for 30 years in the name of equality and it didn't.
It fought for a united Ireland, it made a united Ireland impossible
for the foreseeable future.
And it now rewrites that in order to tell a good story.
Any political party can espouse or take late viewpoints.
They have perhaps been more effective
in advancing the equality agenda
in a number of spheres, not just in the constitutional sphere
in terms of the Irish-versus-British identity
and constitutional issues, but also in other, what might be deemed
progressive, "issues", in terms of the advancing
the rights of the lesbian and gay community.
Sinn Fein have had a more singular, progressive voice on that,
whereas the SDLP have been somewhat confused.
'Ivan Cooper, Chairman of the Derry Citizens' Action Committee,
'handed in the petition and then led the campaigners across to the
'House of Commons to give MPs their views on events in Londonderry.'
Ivan Cooper helped found the SDLP in 1970.
A party grandee, he looks back with regret at mistakes and missteps.
What do you think went wrong for the SDLP
in terms of the party's strengths?
We seem to have drifted from leadership to leadership crisis.
At the end of the day,
the party failed to continue attracting new membership
and for any political party to survive,
it's essential that new members are attracted.
And we simply got lazy. That was what happened, basically.
Right, you better watch they don't put a customer through to me.
The DUP and Sinn Fein have moved in on the middle ground to
a fair extent so I mean...
I mean, you know, the SDLP,
like any other political party,
it has to carve out its ground.
Clearly, it can't just rest on its laurels from the past.
-She soldiered with me 45 years ago.
-I did indeed.
It's showtime at the SDLP party conference.
And D-Day for the Eastwood challenge.
So, members are casting their vote for the leadership election
in a room just in here.
We're only allowed to go this far.
There is less than ten minutes to go.
There's a lot of huddled conversations taking place around
the hotel and the atmosphere, as I would describe it, is quite tense.
Colum Eastwood's supporters are optimistic that their man will win.
We've faced huge challenges
and we've had a very difficult time
and I think young Colum Eastwood
is very courageous
because it would be much easier to stand back and, you know,
let things drift and then take over.
Just looking around at the conference, there's more people
over 40 than under, so how is the SDLP going to attract younger voters?
I have to say I do think there's a good mix
and I'm definitely not somebody that subscribes to the cult of youth.
We just maybe need to clear some of the blockages
that mean that a lot of the young talent around the party
isn't necessarily in councils and in the assembly just yet.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Despite the talk of being united,
there's still an undercurrent of a family
that's trying its best to get on.
I would now like to make the announcement
of the leader of the SDLP
and that is Colum Eastwood.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
We have to be honest.
Somewhere along the course of the road,
our conversations have drifted.
They've centred too much on us as a party
and not enough on the fate and future of the country.
That stops here and now.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Bridging the gap with Sinn Fein remains a key objective.
It's a rivalry and an electoral threat to the SDLP
that has its origins in the 1980s.
The ritual clanging rang through the streets of Belfast.
Whistles and car horns were added to the clamour.
1981 - a watershed year for both parties.
The IRA's campaign of violence continued
but inside the Maze Prison, a dirty protest was coming to an end
as a number of Republican prisoners began a hunger strike.
They had to play another card and, unfortunately,
I hate saying this, it was the deaths of young men in prison...
..on hunger strike.
You had the trauma in the ground.
Rosaries being said on the side of the road.
And election campaigns...
And that became a very difficult period for us.
Over that summer, ten hunger strikers had died.
And the outpouring of grief
further widened a bitter gulf between the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
The hunger strike gave moral authority of a sort to Sinn Fein.
Here were these people dying for what they believed in.
They were actually dying for a united Ireland,
they were not dying for power-sharing of Stormont.
The SDLP, they were denounced as the stoop-down-low party and so forth.
They were catcalled and sneered at on the streets.
I mean I was there when that happened, regularly,
on a regular basis.
They were martyrs at that time
and there was a great deal of enmity between Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
So some of it was not terribly well handled by us
and it was nasty, some of that stuff.
It was a bad mistake.
We demonised them...
The public were sympathetic towards them, we demonised them.
That was a mistake, undoubtedly.
Sinn Fein was now an electoral force.
It changed the game,
prompting Irish and British governments
to seek new political solutions.
I was involved at the time.
Garret FitzGerald was very concerned
as Taoiseach that Sinn Fein
might overtake the SDLP electorally in the north
while the campaign of violence was continuing
and that they would then turn round
and say that the IRA campaign of violence had an electoral mandate,
at least from the nationalist community in the north.
Despite the electoral support for Sinn Fein
in the wake of the hunger strikes,
it has only been since the Good Friday Agreement
that it overtook the SDLP as the largest nationalist party.
For some, John Hume's efforts to forge a path to peace
came at a cost to his party.
Do you think the SDLP were used to bring Sinn Fein
and the IRA in from the cold?
I think, undoubtedly, that happened.
And when did it begin to dawn on some SDLP members that that was happening?
It dawned on us too late because the damage had already been done.
John Hume appeared with Gerry Adams on a televised programme
in the United States.
That was the moment that I knew that...
we were being used.
They used John to validate their own position.
I think it was shabby.
Shabby in the extreme.
Hume remains a hero for the SDLP for his work in negotiating a peace
and finding agreement with unionists and republicans
but the opinion persists that the agreement sowed the seeds
of Sinn Fein's growth at the SDLP's expense.
I get very tired of the Irish insistence
on having heroes and villains all the time.
There aren't any heroes and villains in such stark terms.
John Hume was a brave man who stood up against violence
and he was a very clever man
and he did wear himself out in trying to achieve,
for constitutional nationalists, what he thought was right for them.
I also believe that he really handed nationalism over to Sinn Fein
because he was so certain that he was cleverer than Gerry Adams.
He thought he was leading Sinn Fein, he thought he was using them,
he thought he was converting them and they used him.
And that's why the SDLP was destroyed.
Do you think that it's patronising to suggest that narrative?
That it was the SDLP who brought Sinn Fein
and the republican movement in from the cold?
I think it's more self-pitying than patronising
and part of the problem for the SDLP is
if they hold on to that view, it means they are crucially failing
to self-analyse where they have gone wrong for the past 20 years.
They're not asking the uncomfortable questions that they need to ask
which is how have they lost the confidence
of the Northern nationalist community
and what do they have to do to regain it?
This is it, this is the agreement.
-You have it in your hand.
-I have it in my hand.
Yes - 71.12%.
The Good Friday Agreement is considered
a high point for the SDLP but how things have changed.
17 years on, the sparkle has faded.
The Agreement, and those that have followed it,
have remained wedded to a system of government
that ensures representation from both sides of the community.
But others believe it has merely reinforced the sectarian divide.
Did the Agreement, in its original form, not formalise sectarianism?
It does, it does to an extent, there's no question of it,
but given where we were,
you were not going to get nationalists to agree to sit
in a devolved administration in parliament buildings
unless they felt confident
that they had their hand on the steering wheel along with us.
You've a unionist designation, you've a nationalist designation,
and that was the way things were then and, unfortunately,
it's the way things are now.
But we do not have a track record of success
to demonstrate to people that there is an alternative.
With a deal at Stormont comes an unofficial start
to next year's Assembly elections.
But for all nationalist parties,
the timing could not be more significant.
An election beckons in the Republic too
and it is Sinn Fein that will effectively be standing
in all Ireland elections in 2016, the anniversary of the Easter Rising.
There's a lesson for the SDLP today because, again,
in terms of challenging Sinn Fein,
it is Sinn Fein's all-Ireland stature
that is something that the SDLP has not been able to compete with
and that has continued to ensure that Sinn Fein remains
far in advance of the SDLP in the minds of many Northern nationalists.
We could be just months away from the time that Sinn Fein
could secure a place around the cabinet table in the Dail,
which would be a remarkable advance for, not just Sinn Fein,
but for Northern nationalists in terms of their vision
of being a part of the all-Ireland country.
How close or far away we are from a united Ireland,
if ever, is anybody's guess.
# We Shall Overcome... #
But once again, it is the relationship between nationalists
and the Northern state, past present and future...
..that will spell success or failure for not only the SDLP
but even Stormont itself.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
For the SDLP,
the party that worked for so long to establish power sharing,
today's deal is a sign of just how far it has fallen.
Thank you all very, very much.
Negotiations to resolve our political deadlock were led by the DUP
and Sinn Fein, the details later shared with the smaller parties,
the SDLP included.
..30 and more years.
Meanwhile, back at Stormont,
the SDLP's former partners in government,
the Ulster Unionist Party, have now entered opposition.
Victims, some claim, both of the system
and of those who were once power-sharing
at Stormont's most trenchant critics, Sinn Fein and the DUP.
They have come to dominate the structure
that they didn't negotiate.
Look at the problems in health, look at the problems in education,
look at our problems in manufacturing,
and what are we simply doing?
We're still arguing the toss from 1998
instead of focusing on those issues.
Not so say the DUP and Sinn Fein.
They say today's deal is literally a fresh start.
Tonight, the SDLP has told Spotlight
they are now considering whether they can support today's deal
but say, on first reading, it's very unlikely.
All other parties have also expressed concerns.
The question remains for the SDLP and power-sharing -
A Stormont deal entitled A Fresh Start is reached. The SDLP also gets a potential reboot, by way of a new leader. Jennifer O'Leary assesses the challenges the party faces as power sharing is saved.