Opposition, Opposition, Opposition. The issue has been dominating conversation around the Social Democratic and Labour Party for a while now and so we started our interview with deputy leader Dolores Kelly at the 2014 party conference on that very subject.

Only the night previous she had called on the SDLP to go into opposition and yet she told us that she doesn’t really want to be there, explaining that “obviously the SDLP doesn’t want to be in opposition, we want to be at the heart of government”. However, should the party leave the Executive then opposition is where they’d end up. As far as Ms Kelly is concerned this would actually make the party stronger. Kelly indicates that the SDLP would actually be able to not only offer an alternative but also lose very little in the process.

“Within the Executive, because the two big parties are not working the structures properly in terms of collaborative decision making, I think we would be better out”

“We don’t have a big influence on the big decisions, yes we have an influence in our Department, yes we can have an influence in terms of legislation on the floor of the Assembly but within the Executive, because the two big parties are not working the structures properly in terms of collaborative decision making, I think we would be better out.”

One of the big stumbling blocks against forming an opposition for any party is that it would, by definition, completely change the current institutions and Kelly is aware that many people are concerned that any substantial change could lead to instability.

She notes that “people invested heavily in the GFA when they voted for the compromise…people have invested in the last 15 years in their belief, emotionally, in the structures and the institutions and in trying to move forward out of conflict.”

“There’s always a fear of going back to violence, I don’t think, thankfully, there’s a risk of that, I recognise the dissidents and their role but they haven’t got and aren’t making any inroads in terms of populist support”

With the spectre of dissident violence a slight risk, Kelly believes there’s an opportunity and a duty for the SDLP to change things.

“Now I believe…that there is a need for other parties to offer an alternative and I think that’s where we can say we’d do government differently”

Just a few hours before, the party leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell had said in his address to conference that the SDLP would not go into opposition but keep the possibility under “review”. How could the leader and deputy leader of a party differ on such a fundamental question? Kelly explained that her and McDonnell didn’t really disagree because “the SDLP does support a shift (to a formal opposition) that is the party policy.”

When we asked Dr McDonnell what his “tipping point” would be, what would cause the SDLP to walk away from the Executive, he told us that the party would know it when they saw it. Kelly told me that for her the tipping point couldn’t be an issue of party politics but instead “it has to be an issue around people…people are now very disenfranchised by the shenanigans up at Stormont, I think we need to capture that mood and be prepared to take a stand when the time is right.”

It is apparent that the difference is in the timescale. While McDonnell wants to keep the option up his sleeve, Kelly appears to be chomping at the bit to get out of the Executive, structures be damned.

“For the rest of the people of the North to be held to ransom over an Orange Parade up in Ardoyne is incomprehensible”

Kelly’s patience is tested even further when the conversation moves to the topic of the current inter party talks, as she notes that “we were here this time last year we were here before.”

“There’s always an election on the horizon, so the cynic in me – and I worked a long time in the health service so I’m quite cynical I have to say – I do worry that the talks are some kind of smoke screen and mirrors because people are fed up…I’m not very optimistic I’d have to say and for the rest of the people of the North to be held to ransom over an Orange Parade up in Ardoyne is incomprehensible”

“They [the talks] haven’t got any real clear timeline…they [the Executive] talk about talks being intensified, but what does that really mean?”

One of the main bones of contention for Kelly throughout our conversation is the actions of the DUP, she believes that in this round of talks that they are “trying to play both sides by letting on the Irish government has no role in these talks”. She states that “the Irish government has a central role, it is a co guarantor of the GFA.”

She is certain that this comes from the fact that “they’re looking over their shoulder at Jim Allister and others…there’s no generosity of spirit, I mean, are they really going to touch on the past? The past is the big issue poisoning today”.

The issue of the past poisoning the present was more than brought home by the fact that Maria Cahill addressed a fringe meeting at the SDLP conference and it’s on the issue of Ms Cahill that Kelly slips from impatience into anger.

While Kelly is talking about her party remaining in the executive or the inability of inter party talks to reach a decent conclusion, she is impatient and frustrated. When she talks about the treatment of Maria Cahill, she is genuinely angry. Kelly is a personable woman, but when moved to anger, she shows the hard centre that has brought her this far in politics. It is a seismic shift, her voice becomes sterner, her words razor-sharp.

“Sinn Féin have a lot to answer and for the first time you really do see SF and the IRA morphing into one.”

She blames Sinn Féin for attacking Cahill but is not surprised, believing anyone that challenges them have faced similar personal attacks, saying that “Sinn Fein have thrown everything at Maria Cahill…if you’re not against the peace process then you’re mentally unstable you’re an alcoholic, you know they trash people’s characters and reputations.”

Kelly’s most heated comments are reserved for Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin Vice President.

“What’s more disconcerting for me and what makes me really angry is Mary Lou McDonald, another woman who allowed herself to be used as a decoy to take the heat off Adams this week with her fake protest in the Dáil. What I’d say to the TD’s in the South, at least she was only doing a sit in, up here and in London they tried to blow the Houses of Parliament and Stormont up.”

As far as Kelly is concerned, “Sinn Fein have a lot to answer and for the first time you really do see SF and the IRA morphing into one.”

However, the deputy leader praises Ms Cahill’s courage in speaking out, saying that “Maria Cahill’s voice has led to other people coming forward.”

In reality, this is of course is the same Sinn Féin that has overtaken the SDLP as the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, so why have SDLP slipped to and stayed in second place? For one thing, Kelly believes that the party made electoral sacrifices in order to secure peace, but she also believes it ties into a wider apathy, especially among young people.

“We had started to believe the propaganda that all young people from a nationalist background vote Sinn Féin, they don’t! A lot of them are staying at home, they’re completely disconnected from politics.”

If we started with opposition because it was one of the dominating conversation topics at conference then we ended with the only issue that has been even more prominent, the leadership of the party and possible changes in the future.

“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.”

Ms Kelly, told us “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”. Due to new ‘double jobbing’ rules McDonnell will not be able to sit as both an MLA and an MP after the next Assembly elections.

The SDLP will then seek to elect a leader who sits in Stormont.

“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.”

Ms Kelly then went on to highlight the wealth of talent she feels there is among the next generation of leadership of her party.

“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.”

I couldn’t help but make the observation that her name is often mentioned as a potential future leader and Kelly bursts out laughing and says, perhaps not totally sincerely, “oh is it? I didn’t know that”.

So would she do it?

“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.”

With that we were done. Dolores Kelly is warm and easy to talk to, whose tongue can double as a switchblade when called upon. One question remains, when the leadership change comes, will she choose one of the young pretenders to back or will the temptation to throw her hat into the ring prove too much to resist?

Jason Ashford | |