Northern Ireland

SDLP young guns await leadership showdown

Daniel McCrossan
Image caption Daniel McCrossan is convinced Alasdair McDonnell is still the man to lead the SDLP

Gerard McDonald and Daniel McCrossan are both young, articulate and members of the SDLP. There the similarities largely end.

Daniel turned 27 last week and is convinced Alasdair McDonnell is still the man to lead the party.

Gerard is just 22 and says the opportunity to elect a new younger leader in Colum Eastwood is one the party cannot afford to miss.

Dr McDonnell, 66, has been SDLP leader since 2011.

He was elected on a platform of renewal.

It has yielded some success in a number of constituencies.

But, for a section of the party, the results have not translated fast enough into electoral success and they believe it is time for him to go.

Mr McDonald, from west Belfast, is one of them.

"Over the past three elections the results, they haven't been good; they haven't been what we expected," he told the BBC One NI programme The View.

"So when the results are bad the party has to reflect on change.

"They've reflected on it, Colum Eastwood has said 'let me lead the party'. He's stepped up to the plate.

"He's given us a vision of progressive nationalism, something we can buy into, something we can sell to the voters - he's a clear communicator.

"The bull-in-a-china-shop approach - we can't afford it any more. It's losing us votes and with him only being 32 that's 20 or 30 years he's willing to commit to the party."

Talk of bulls and china shops is a reference to Dr McDonnell.

It is an image that has stuck with him because of his blunt approach and friends even say it is one he quite likes.

Mr McCrossan, from Strabane in County Tyrone, disagrees with the assessment that it is time for change.

He is something of a poster boy for Dr McDonnell's new brand of SDLP.

Plucked from obscurity, Mr McCrossan will be the party's only candidate in West Tyrone at the assembly election.

But his elevation has caused more divisions in the local party that has fought internal battles for more than 30 years.

Image caption Gerard McDonald says the opportunity to elect a new younger leader in Colum Eastwood is one the party cannot afford to miss

"There is a mixed range of views among the party, and in West Tyrone the majority of the membership, which has trebled in the last four years, has voted for me as the sole candidate at this stage," said Mr McCrossan who acknowledges a second candidate could yet be added to the ticket for the assembly election.

"I think it's the wrong time for a leadership challenge, but regardless of the result this weekend I'll be working very tight with the leader, whether it is Colum Eastwood or Alasdair, to ensure that the best result is delivered in this constituency.

Divisions

"Yes, Sinn Féin have taken over our vote, but we have went through a lot of change under Alasdair McDonnell's leadership.

"He has followed through with a lot of the changes that he promised and I am sure that, if he is allowed the time to do that beyond this weekend, that we will see a lot of benefits from that.

"This constituency, Newry and Armagh, Fermanagh have all seen benefits of the work Alasdair McDonnell has put in. We've seen growth and we've all seen increases in our vote."

Whoever wins, the first task will be to heal divisions which are now only too obvious. It may be an impossible task but Mr McDonald says Colum Eastwood can do it.

"He's only 32, he's that generation below Dolores Kelly, Alban Maginness, Alex Attwood, Alasdair McDonnell so if he is elected it is a watershed moment in the sense that those characters can't come back because Colum Eastwood is now leading the party.

"You're never going to go for an older leader again. It is up to them'uns whether or not to bury the hatchet . He's got the support of Seamus Mallon and Brid Rodgers, he's got younger members like me supporting him so if that's the case these people will just have to get on with it if Colum Eastwood wins."