Pic: Michael Kooiman

Dolores Kelly, the deputy leader of the SDLP has given a ringing endorsement to the next generation of leadership in her party and a strong indication that Dr Alasdair McDonnell will not lead the party into the 2016 Assembly elections.

While Ms Kelly said that any decision by Dr McDonnell to resign would be “a matter for Alasdair and the party” the change in rules on politicians being able to sit as both an MP and an MLA is likely to precipitate a change in leadership. The change in rules on what is commonly known as “double jobbing” will come into force when the Assembly is dissolved, which will probably be in March 2016, just before the Assembly elections.

“He brought the party with him on that mandate and arguably there is better organisation across the north as a consequence. Let’s see what the next six months bring”

Ms Kelly explained that the idea of the party leader holding a mandate at Stormont rather than Westminster is something that is increasingly popular both inside the party and out.

“The issue around the party leader being based at Westminster versus the Assembly is one I think that many people endorse – that actually it’s better to lead from the Assembly, so Alasdair set himself some very clear targets over two years ago in terms of re-energizing and re-branding the party. He brought the party with him on that mandate and arguably there is better organisation across the north as a consequence. Let’s see what the next six months brings.”

If re-elected as MP for South Belfast, Dr McDonnell would have to resign his seat at Westminster in order to take up a seat in the Assembly. Ms Kelly, told us however, that McDonnell will likely keep his Westminster seat at the expense of his place in Stormont.

“If we keep the three [Westminster] seats then Alasdair will be taking his seat at Westminster and therefore will have to stand down at the Assembly and that then should see, that we should then be looking towards a leader from the Assembly”.

The leadership of the SDLP has been an issue of debate and rumour for a number of weeks. In a snap poll  only a third of SDLP members asked agreed that McDonnell should lead the party into the Assembly elections. Mrs Kelly stated that there is no desire in the party to make changes before the Westminster elections.

“There was no leadership challenge at this conference and this is the time when people are nominated for all different positions in the party…but six months before an election you’re not likely to do it.”

“If we keep the three [Westminster] seats then Alasdair will be taking his seat at Westminster and therefore will have to stand down at the Assembly and that then should see, that we should then be looking towards a leader from the Assembly”.

We asked Ms Kelly about Alasdair McDonnell’s plans for the party, while McDonnell has been widely praised for his organisational abilities we ask if he has a vision for the party?

Ms Kelly said “well, we heard his speech today and he did talk about a number of issues but I have to say that I am very encouraged by the number of young people we having coming up in the next generation who spoke at conference both last night and today.”

“Last night we had our young MLA Colum Eastwood, a young man from Derry, very passionate, very much believes in the social justice values and the left wing values of the party, very able, in my view he has a very clear vision in taking the party forward. We have Nichola Mallon and we have Claire Hanna. I actually think it may well be when we next look to select a leader we’ll look to the next generation and I’d be very happy to support any of those candidates in moving forward.”

The SDLP deputy leader also explained that she has no intention of putting herself forward in any future leadership contests, planning instead to focus on achieving a better work-life balance and enjoying life as a first time grandmother.

“To be honest I worked in the public sector for 22 years, I was a councillor, and an MLA now for 21 years, and I’m a first time grandmother…so I’m very happy at the role that I’m in and it’s just trying to get the work-life balance…I’m getting to the stage where I just want to, yes still make a contribution, but also have more time with my own family.”

The interview, which will be published in full tomorrow on this website, covered a range of topics including the possibility of a formal opposition and her disdain for Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Mary Lou MacDonald’s recent protest in the Dáil.

In an interview with Dr McDonnell, he told this website that he has “no intention of not remaining leader” and would remain in position for as long as the party wanted him.

Jason Ashford | Follow Jason on Twitter – 

Image: Creative Commons |