Armagh City Hotel. Crowded hall which is maybe surprising for a Convention to ratify the single nominee. It was so to speak, an “open invite”. Attendees from several branches, not in the constituency.
Margaret Ritchie MP in the Chair. Justin McNulty was formally nominated by Seamus Mallon, former Party Leader and former MP for the constituency. Important at this stage to say that Justin McNulty has SDLP “DNA”, his parents being SDLP canvassers for nearly forty years. Seamus called it a watershed election, “the high ball is there to be caught and the low ball is there to be kicked”.
“We are in this to win….”. As expected, a number of sporting references. Seamus is of course a former Armagh county player. As is Justin McNulty…an All-Ireland winner in 2002.
More seriously he referenced victims and the old days, going into a polling station in Mullaghbawn and two armed men writing down the names of voters. Seamus spoke of two ambitions …the election of Justin McNulty and the regaining of the second Assembly seat in 2016.
The nomination was seconded by Dominic Bradley MLA. Again referencing Justin McNulty’s SDLP credentials, on both paternal and maternal sides. It spoke about Justins courage in going forward. And he spoke about “fresh approach” and the need to engage new voters.
Justin McNulty speech. He acknowledged that SDLP are the “underdogs”. Sporting references of course. Teamwork. He has republican, civil rights and SDLP credentials, his father bein a founder member of the SDLP. And parents with a long record of SDLP membership and canvassing.
“We will not be daunted….we will be dignified ….we will be relentless”. Canvassers everywhere. A presence in every polling station. The 8,000 vote majority to be chipped away one vote at a time. In terms of issues, he spoke about NHS, an economic recovery that nobody sees and changes to rural way of life and farming.
The SDLP will canvass from Charlemont to Crossmaglen, Forkhill to Richhill, Tandragee to Dromintee, and the streets and lanes of Armagh and Newry.
Alasdair McDonnell talked about DUP and Sinn Féin squeezing all hope out of the Good Friday Agreement. He spoke of a difficult few years of the SDLP but things were changing. Around forty per cent of SDLP councillors elected in May last year are “new” and forty per cent are women. Al spoke of the excitement generated by the news emerging over recent weeks that Justin McNulty would be the Party’s candidate.
All in all….there was a buzz. Of course there is always a buzz at a political launch. There are two kinds of “buzz”. One is manufactured and one is heart-felt and genuine. There was genuine excitement here in Armagh tonight.
In a sense, the SDLP need good news. We need to cheer but we are not just cheering ANYTHING. We were heartened that Justin McNulty is a pretty good articulate and new candidate. He is an “underdog” but he is up for the fight and we need that. There is a good core vote for SDLP in the constituency. It is something to be build on. Justin will get a lot of coverage. He is actually better known in the constituency as a whole than Mickey Brady, the Sinn Féin candidate. He was more SDLP DNA in his system than Brady has SF DNA…and Brady seems a weaker candidate than Conor Murphy, the outgoing MP. It might be seen as arrogant that SF gave up the advantage of incumbency.
The “dressing room” rhetoric works well. It is about Teamwork. Just as Armagh, underdogs against Kerry in the All Ireland Final in 2002, caused an upset, then so too are SDLP underdogs. But there is perhaps an unforeseen bonus. I expect now that SDLP will do better in 2015 than they did in 2010. In the interests of absolute accuracy and the reputation of this Blog, I put it no higher than that. Speaking as a SDLP member, I am optimistic that it will be even better….but the bonus might be that Daniel McCrossan (in West Tyrone) and John Coyle (in Fermanagh-South Tyrone) and indeed others could benefit. Optimism is kinda contagious.
Tonight SDLP feels good about itself. And has a lot of justification.