“Hello. We are from Off the Record NI, would it be possible to grab a five-minute interview?”
“Off the Record? What’s that?” came the abrupt reply.
And so began our five-minute interview with the SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell, a man who speaks in short sentences, a man who emits the silent and passive persona of a dry white wine and, if our experience at the 2014 party conference is anything to go by, is the equivalent of interviewing a brick wall – providing just about the same amount of warmth and passion that we would expect to get from interviewing the plant-pot out the front of the conference hall.
It’s understandable perhaps – doing an interview with a little known political website is probably far below Mr McDonnell’s pay grade. Nevertheless, we have interviewed a few notable (and just as formidable) political figures – Alliance’s Naomi Long, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, NI21’s John and Basil, Green Party leader Steven Agnew – and they have all been courteous, even if they had no idea who we were. We know that you don’t interview politicians to make friends – but this was just surreal.
As previously mentioned, we only had five minutes with the SDLP leader, so after introducing ourselves we got straight into asking about the issue of formal opposition. It is a notion that many political parties in Northern Ireland have toyed with and teased – including the UUP and Alliance – yet everyone involved seems certain that the structures in place don’t support the ideal.
In his party speech earlier in the day, Mr McDonnell spoke of formulating a ‘constructive opposition’. He said that “In the meantime, if other parties don’t get to grips with their responsibilities, and we can’t settle on an agreed way forward then we will reserve the right to operate from a position of constructive opposition. The present structures do not stop us from opposing bad legislation or from highlighting the flaws and the problems with the two bigger parties. Nor do they stop us from saying No”. Dr McDonnell then stated that the idea of forming an opposition is something the party will review and evaluate on an ongoing basis.
We wanted to expand on this – what would be the tipping point for the leader which could transform a ‘constructive opposition’ into a literal one?
“We will keep that whole thing under review”, he explained, “and we will review how we can be most effective in Stormont. If there comes a point were we can’t have an input in the status we’re in, the position we are in, then we will know that.”
On the hypothetical breaking point, Mr McDonnell said that “we will know when it comes, we haven’t reached it yet. At the moment it’s very clear Mark H Durkan does have an influence in the Executive, frustrating as it might be at times, and it was very important to us that he be there and vote against the budget because we believe it was a bad budget”.
We ask if there’s a problem with voting against the budget yet continuing to sit comfortably in the government that is implementing it?
“Problem for who?” he interjected. “Problem for yourselves” we reply.
“There’s no problem, no. We are in a unique situation – in a five party government, it’s structured very differently from the other government – and all parties there are partly in government and part in opposition. The DUP votes against things at times in the Assembly, and that’s not a crisis, [we didn’t mention a crisis] Sinn Féin votes against them and that’s not a crisis…the budget was a bad budget. Are you suggesting that we should have voted for a bad budget?”
We suggest that if you can’t agree on the budget – which is ultimately the core of what the government is going to spend its money on – then how can the SDLP agree on everything that follows as a result from that?
“It doesn’t come from that” Mr McDonnell stated, also saying that the SDLP are not there depending on a budget strategy, instead mentioning the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the inter-party participation that came as a result.
On the future leadership of the SDLP, Mr McDonnell stated that he has “no intention of not remaining leader”, saying that “I will continue to do that while the party want me.”
We move swiftly on to the recently reignited inter-party talks, originally started at the tail end of last year, chaired by Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O’Sullivan, and ask Mr McDonnell what he wants to see come out of the new process.
“We want an absolutely comprehensive agreement that entails all four pillars – the financial, the Haass situation, the structures and functions of the Assembly and the unfinished business left over from the Good Friday Agreement.”
We ask if there is any time limit set for this new round of talks? “You don’t set time limits on these things. You basically work away until you get a solution” comes the response.
The SDLP leader disagreed when we said that the previous Haass talks had been a failure.
“Sorry, Haass didn’t fall apart. Haass reached a very fair and reasonable agreement on New Years Eve, in fact he pulled back to facilitate unionists. He pulled back from Haass 6 and the Haass 7 was a document that was created to accommodate the unionists’ needs but they still didn’t feel that they could support it. So, Haass didn’t fall apart, the Haass document is there.”
As we try to expand on this, McDonnell cuts in, “Sorry, sorry, we are going to have to re-adopt Haass one of these days as the solution on parading and flags and the past.”
We ask if the talks will ever end or will they simply continue forever?
“A phase of talking may finish but politics is about talk and if those talks finish then other talks are going to have to start about something else. Politics is the art of the possible. [The current talks] will finish when we get a solution. I would like to think by January but the point is this: if we don’t get something sorted out by January we will have to come back and sort them out some other time.”
Mr McDonnell shifted his stance, leaning forward. It was clear our time was coming to an end. Indeed, the press officer (who is lovely, by the way) signalled to wrap it up.
And that was that. We said our thanks, stood up and watched with bemused expressions and slight frustration, as he shuffled away without saying goodbye.
Words: Jason Murdock | Interview: Jason Ashford