I headed to Armagh for the SDLP Party Conference this weekend. Perhaps some of you who are reading this were there and are pondering my identity, well keep pondering... for that particular piece of information is not becoming exoteric for the moment!
Overall my assessment of the conference was mixed. I didn't see anything that made me think, yes the SDLP is on its way back, but I did think there were some glimmers of potential. Durkan's speech wasn't his best, but he did just about enough. Ritchie gave a decent account of the DUP/SF carve up failing the people of NI. The best speech, however, I thought came from European candidate Alban Maginness. A passion for Europe really came across and a well put together critique of the sitting MEPs showed he is certainly up for a fight. It did make me think for a second that he may actually stand a chance of getting elected... it was only for a second though (as I've blogged before the numbers just don't stack up in my opinion). I do at least think that Alban will garner the majority of transfers from the Alliance or 'unity' candidate now, instead of splitting them evenly with Jim Nicholson as appeared to happen between Martin Morgan and Nicholson in 2004. Maginness seems to be positioning himself more towards the centre ground, a sensible move to try and pick as many 'protestant Alliance' voters as possible.
The most moving part of the Conference was Paul Quinn's mother remembering her son and his brutal death in South Armagh, recounted at one of the fringe meetings. A truly memorable occasion that left many brushing the tears away from their eyes.
The main glimmers of hope for the party came, in my opinion, from a number of conversations with party delegates. There is a massive willingness to implement some of the lessons from the Obama campaign and bring in new techniques to engage with voters and increase membership. If the SDLP is brave and puts serious resources into this then they may be able to find the formula to reverse the trend of falling votes. The party has a future, but only if it can use new methods to re-engage the disengaged.