Northern Ireland

SDLP 'needs leadership change,' says Mark Durkan

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Media captionMark Durkan says the SDLP needs a change of leadership, as Chris Page reports

Former SDLP leader Mark Durkan has said the party leadership needs to change in time for next year's assembly election.

Alasdair McDonnell has made it clear he does not intend to stand down, despite some senior SDLP figures arguing he cannot lead the party from Westminster.

Mr Durkan said he "should make a clear decision in relation to the leadership".

"I don't think the party can be led into an assembly election from Westminster," he told the BBC.

'New leadership'

Speaking on BBC One programme The View, Mr Durkan, who stepped down as leader in 2010, said Dr McDonnell's leadership was "a real issue" posed by voters on the doorstep during general election canvassing.

"If Alasdair thinks that just resigning from the assembly deals with the questions, well it won't because these questions will all surface again once he resigns from the assembly," he said.

"As we move towards an assembly election, the questions won't go away and therefore I think if we're going to be in a better position to fight the election, then the leadership needs to change."

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Media captionSDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said he was not going to run away from a task half done.

Dr McDonnell earlier rejected criticism by party grandees Seamus Mallon and Brid Rodgers that he should step down, telling the programme: "I'm not going to run away from a task half done."

However, Mr Durkan said he believed voters wanted to "see the party with a new leadership going into the assembly election".

He said the message given to his party during the election campaign was that voters felt disillusioned with the DUP and Sinn Féin at Stormont, "and they want to see that challenged in a cogent, competent way and in a passionate way".

"I think that means that people want to see new leadership in the SDLP that will be going forward with a very strong platform into the next election," he said.

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Image caption Seamus Mallon and Brid Rodgers have both called for Dr McDonnell to step down as leader

Dr McDonnell, in his interview with the programme, was dismissive of internal party critics who say they may try to force a special party conference where they could mount a leadership challenge if he does not resign.

"We're a democratic party - people are entitled to challenge," he said.

"There's a conference scheduled for November. I have heard no word of any special conference or anything else."

Mr Durkan said a leadership contest would raise party morale and "appeal to the interest of voters who are switching off".

Asked if the issue could wait until the SDLP conference in November, he said: "I would have been among those who would have believed that an indication from Alasdair that he wouldn't be pursuing the leadership at the next conference would have been sufficient.

'Fight or flight'

"In the current circumstances I'm no longer persuaded of that and I think Alasdair needs to move more decisively and earlier."

However, SDLP MLA for South Belfast, Fearghal McKinney, said Dr McDonnell was elected as leader on the agenda of the renewal of the party and he did not think he should resign from his position.

He said he believed Dr McDonnell had the support within the party and that he would still be leading it at next year's assembly elections.

"I think people are conflating two issues, the assembly seat which Alasdair now by virtue of a rule change at Westminster is obliged to vacate, and the leadership," he said.

"Alasdair was elected on a very narrow agenda which was the renewal of the SDLP and the modernising of it.

"He will not let a rule change from Westminster dictate that agenda, he still is on his mission to renew."

SDLP councillor in Belfast, Claire Hanna, who has been tipped in some quarters as a future MLA, said she did not believe the party could be led from Westminster.

"This is a do or die, it is fight or flight for the SDLP for the next 12 months," she said.

"The vote is continuing to decline, this is make or break."

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