I attended the SDLP Conference, which was held at the Slieve Donard Hotel (er, “Resort and Spa”) in Newcastle, Co. Down. I was more interested in the speeches and debates being held on the Friday evening, which included a late night motion on a shared future.
The SDLP always set out an overly ambitious conference agenda, with dozens of motions and unrealistic time allocation for the planned speeches. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before we were a full hour behind schedule.
The first item I recorded was a motion on education. This was proposed by Dominic Bradley MLA (SDLP Education Spokesperson), and seconded by Conall McDevitt MLA (who is championing a parent-led initiative for education reform). Joanne Murphy also spoke for the motion. I loved her opening remark, referring to her husband in the formal: “I had no intention of speaking after Conall McDevitt.”:
I next recorded the Deputy Leader’s Speech, by Dr Alasdair McDonnell MP MLA. As I write this I do not know whether he will be elected as next SDLP Party Leader (votes being cast during the conference; result announced Sunday). But as much as I respect McDonnell’s work in South Belfast (and he was courteous and gentlemanly to me on the campaign trail), his speech came across as a nice-to-know-you, farewell speech. I appreciate that this was indeed a formal announcement of him stepping down as Deputy Leader. But he didn’t take the opportunity to make reference to any of his “4 Pledges” in his bid for party leadership (or if he did, it didn’t get embedded). It was a downcast presentation. The only significant applause he got was when he cited Margaret Ritchie, his competitor for party leadership:
Next were a LONG series of motions on the economy. I stepped out from time to time, clock watching so as I wouldn’t miss the DSD Minister’s speech. Every 15 minutes I’d make my way back to the hall, where I’d see that they were STILL talking about the economy. But I’ll say that Declan O’Loan is clearly committed to the issue.
Margaret Ritchie MLA presented a speech, as Minister for Social Development. As I expected, she made clear reference to her pursuit of a shared future agenda, which she demonstrated through cited DSD projects. I may find her presentation style somewhat stilted, but there’s substance behind her vision:
At long last, at 11.00pm, we finally got to the motion on shared future, which was proposed by Dolores Kelly MLA, and seconded by Niall Kelly. And Joanne Murphy also spoke for the motion. I couldn’t contain my neutrality, and applauded when she said that it was a disgrace that conference was debating such a significant issue so late, with no time to discuss it properly:
As I was not staying overnight, promptly after the passage of this motion I made my way home, through the dark, windy and foggy roads of Co. Down.
So I made my way back from the Young Unionists’ AGM to the SDLP Annual Conference, for a fringe meeting organised by SDLP Youth: “Changing identities in a new Ireland”. Guest speakers were Brian Walker (Professor, Queen’s University Belfast), John McCallister MLA (UUP), and Conall McDevitt MLA (SDLP).
I missed most of Prof. Walker’s speech and furthermore was having technical difficulties with my camcorder. In the panic I forgot that my iPhone could have served as a substitute! But I managed to record McCallister’s speech and the summing up by all three guests.
McCallister is a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, an elected representative of the South Down constituency and a member of the Health, Social Service and Public Safety Committee at the Northern Ireland Assembly. He clearly demonstrated progressive attitudes towards his identity (identities), in the context of interdependent relationships on these islands:
Prof. Walker’s approach is to consider how contemporary events influence communal perceptions of history. He is relatively optimistic about how the peace process provides scope for more progressive interpretations of history:
McDevitt is a member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and recently became a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly as a representative of the South Belfast constituency, replacing party colleague Carmel Hanna, who stepped down. He is very passionate about what a new Ireland could look like:
The challenge remains whether a majority of unionists, nationalists, and society as a whole, are willing to adapt their traditional perceptions, celebrations of historical events and even their own personal identities, in developing a new Ireland or otherwise defined shared future.