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SDLP looking for 'new' faces to combat Sinn Féin

(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)

Influential voices are beginning to be heard in SDLP circles arguing that the party needs to invite a number of former luminaries to rejoin its ranks as part of a strategy to tackle a future of growing rivalry with Sinn Féin for the support of mainstream Nationalism, according to SDLP sources.

The suggestion was given a boost last week by the re-appearance on a political stage of two of its founder members, Ivan Cooper and Paddy O’Hanlon, who played central roles in the celebration of John Hume’s thirty years in politics at a gala dinner in the Europa Hotel in Belfast last Wednesday. Over 400 guests, many from government and political circles in Dublin, attended the festivities.

O’Hanlon was master of ceremonies for the five hour long celebration while Cooper gave what was acknowledged widely as the best speech of the evening. It is the first time for as long as most observers can remember that the pair, who began political life alongside Hume in the civil rights movement in the late 1960’s and helped found the SDLP in 1970, have been seen on a political stage.

Also present at the evening’s revelry was another former member Adrian Colton whose name is being linked with the SDLP’s need for a more youthful image and membership. In his early 40’s and once a leading light in what became known briefly as the SDLP ‘Young Turks’ group in the mid-80’s, Colton is a barrister originally from Co. Tyrone who left the SDLP in the late 1980’s in frustration at the grip over the party held by the older various leadership figures.

Friends of the three are beginning to make a case for them at a point when the SDLP is under pressure to come up with a strategy to re-invigorate the party and strengthen it against their younger and dollar-rich Sinn Féin rivals. Few in the SDLP doubt that SF’s long term ambition is to supplant it, but many more wonder whether the older and more fatigued SDLP is capable in its present state of fighting back.

Party strategists seem agreed that the SDLP requires an injection of new and younger blood if it is to fight off Sinn Féin. While there is a view that, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, the prospect of a secure political career could ultimately entice younger people to join the SDLP some believe the party must act more urgently.

O’Hanlon and Cooper both dropped out of politics in the aftermath of the failure of the 1974 Sunningdale power-sharing experiment. Exhausted and marked by the experience they were forced to reconstruct their lives. Paddy O’Hanlon has been a barrister for 13 years while Ivan Cooper survived a number of escapades and settled down as a tax consultant.

Their supporters are claiming that their comparative freshness and known abilities allied to Colton’s youth could be worthwhile assets to the SDLP but there is also likely to be fierce resistance from senior figures worried at losing influence or seats.

Neither O’Hanlon nor Colton would make any comment and Cooper failed to return phone calls. Friends say that Colton is “cool but persuadable” while O’Hanlon, in the words of one, “would be on for it”. Ivan Cooper’s disposition is not known.