SDLP still a difficult ship to steer

So Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are off to Shanghai and Hong Kong in the hope of fostering trade links with China, due to be the world's largest economy by 2025.

Having crossed so many time zones to get there, our ministers can be forgiven for frequently checking their watches.

But let's hope they don't present anyone they meet with a clock - according to the University of Ulster's Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh that would be a major breach of etiquette, as in China you only give a clock as a present when someone has died.

Having spent Monday putting together a report for BBC Newsline on the First and Deputy's First Ministers' business mission, I'm a little late in updating this blog on my visit to the weekend's SDLP conference at Armagh. But here goes.

Alasdair McDonnell must have breathed a sigh of relief to have completed his speech without a repeat of the awful technical difficulties that left him blinking in the TV lights last year.

In fact I think the SDLP leader was assisted this year by a technical problem - an autocue booked in by the party apparently failed to work.

This meant that Dr McDonnell delivered his speech in the old fashioned way from a printed script. He was in his comfort zone and it showed.

So much for the style, what about the content? On that score the McDonnell leadership has yet to prove itself.

The leader says he has improved the party's internal organisation, but there's nothing obvious that is likely to persuade a voter that the SDLP is, as Dr McDonnell claims, a resurgent force.

On Friday night, the leadership tried to push through some changes that would have established a Permanent Election Directorate, giving Dr McDonnell more control over the selection of SDLP candidates.

Another proposal would have ensured that in future the party leader and deputy leader would be elected on the same slate, rather than with separate mandates.

Watchdog

The leadership lost both these votes in a closed session - proof that the SDLP remains a difficult ship to steer.

If some chose to interpret the proposed change to the way the deputy leader is picked as a "power grab" by Dr McDonnell, then Dolores Kelly appeared in no mood to give ground.

Her speech on Friday night, flagging up the possibility of the SDLP moving into opposition, became the main talking point for the conference.

Although the deputy leader wasn't talking about going into opposition "next week or next month", she appeared far more enthusiastic about the idea than her leader.

On Inside Politics, Dr McDonnell warned that, because of the lack of official recognition for any opposition, such a move might seem to voters as if the SDLP was "effectively packing it in".

In his speech, the leader described the SDLP's role as that of a "watchdog within the Executive".

The danger of this debate about opposition, just like the mirror debate within the Ulster Unionists, is that it has all the potential to go round and round in ever decreasing circles.

The Northern Ireland Office has consulted on potential changes to the Stormont system, but isn't likely to push ahead with any grand reforms that cannot command overall consensus.

The vanquished UUP leadership contender John McCallister put his finger on it when he argued that change would only come if the parties disgruntled with the mandatory coalition take matters into their own hands.