Deposed SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly believes she was “the sacrificial lamb at Saturday’s annual meeting of the party, but I’m prepared to accept that”.
The Upper Bann MLA lost out to party tenderfoot Fearghal McKinney (co-opted to South Belfast two years ago), but she has taken it on the chin.
“I can see the rationale,” she admitted. “Fearghal was a staunch supporter of Alasdair McDonnell who lost the leadership at the weekend to Colum Eastwood. It’s no secret that I was opposed to Alasdair’s leadership.
“So, in order to unite both strands at Saturday’s annual conference, I believe there were background moves to give the number two spot to Fearghal and so be it. I will now continue to focus on my constituency and Assembly work. Hopefully, the new order will lead a united party into next year’s Stormont election and we will increase our support and membership.”
Mrs Kelly has made no secret of her doubts over McDonnell’s leadership, during which the party’s support diminished – including her own vote in Upper Bann. It is recognised that she could lose out to Sinn Fein next May if the trend continues.
“But I think the wind of change is beginning to blow,” she said. “Under Mike Nesbitt’s leadership – by moving them to the centre – the UUP are on the ascendency.
“I am convinced that Colum Eastwood will do the same for us, and that SDLP and UUP will occupy the middle ground together.
“DUP and Sinn Fein, rather than running the country, have spent their time running one another down, and this has had a negative effect on services like health, education and all the rest.
“The people are fed up listening to them and I believe we will grasp the mood and create a true shared future.”
Mrs Kelly, who lost by 158 votes to 138 to McKinney, always thought that Mr McDonnell was too Westminster orientated to lead the party, and that she was the de facto leader in the Assembly.
“True, he retained his seat as did others at Westminster,” she said. “But the focus must now be on increasing our influence at Stormont and delivering good government that has been sadly lacking in Northern Ireland.”
Mrs Kelly – Craigavon’s first nationalist mayor (2000) - has fought and won three Assembly elections.
She believes the SDLP will gain support through the new order.
“We will effect a turn-around similar to the UUP”, she said.