Cometh the hour, cometh the man will be the hope of SDLP supporters this week as Alasdair McDonnell steps into the spotlight — hopefully with eyes appropriately shielded — as the new party leader.
And despite a shaky start, the South Belfast MP and MLA has set his sights high, targeting 20 seats at the next Assembly elections (from an overall total due to fall by 12 from 108 to 96 under proposed boundary changes).
Any plan to capture a fifth of the seats in the Assembly will require the type of belt-and-braces approach which epitomises the new SDLP chief’s political style. Indeed, if anyone is able to get the oft-criticised party structures by the scruff, it should be Alasdair McDonnell.
But to revive the party’s fortunes will also require a laser-sharp focus on its woebegone structures and dismal finances — areas which have remained impervious to the best efforts of both Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie.
But Dr McDonnell’s greatest difficulty will be his unwillingness to focus on just one job. As his predecessors have discovered, the gift of bilocation is beyond even the most gifted SDLP leader. Mark Durkan stepped down as leader because he said he couldn’t function effectively in both the Assembly and Westminster. In doing so, he moved into virtual political oblivion as the House of Commons becomes increasingly irrelevant to our lives.
Margaret Ritchie also realised the limitations placed on her by serving two masters and jumped ship from the Assembly. Even if the former GP didn’t have obligations as a businessman, we doubt if he could come up with a better solution to the double-jobbing dilemma of those who came before him.
The logic then is that he concentrate on the one major task which would be of most benefit to the body politic in the North of Ireland: his position in local politics. Indeed, if he were to opt to keep the home fires burning, Dr McDonnell might just feel that he would make the best Executive minister for the SDLP. That surely would shake up the Executive and build on the work of the party’s best-ever Minister Alex Attwood — whose ministerial days are surely numbered. It would also bring an added element of competition to politics on the nationalist side of the house — something which would benefit voters and spark greater interest in the local political scene.
Whatever road forward the new SDLP leader and South Belfast representative choses, he can be sure he carries the hopes and best wishes of all those who believe that positive political leadership can build the peace and transform our economic fortunes.
This much is certain, as Dr McDonnell’s first speech as leader showed, we can expect political fireworks under his leadership.