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BBC NI's Connor Bradford talks to Mr Mallon
"Get this into proportion" says the SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon
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Thursday, 27 April, 2000, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
SDLP drive to 'renew' party
SDLP leader John Hume
Hume: Hoping to attract young blood
SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon has admitted his party has an age problem following an internal review which said it was "too tired and middle class".

The report commissioned by the Social Democratic and Labour Party said the party must change its image to try to win back votes in the nationalist community.

The review of the main nationalist party's structures reflected the fears of members, from the grassroots up, that the SDLP was in danger of losing too much ground to its main rival Sinn Fein.

SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon
Seamus Mallon: SDLP's unselfish sacrfice for peace
It called for a broadening of the party's electoral base, targeting young and non-Catholic voters and for measures including updating the party logo.

Mr Mallon, who was deputy first minister of Northern Ireland's suspended assembly, said his party needed to adapt to changing times, but that the party still had wide appeal.

"Let us remember that in the last election, the assembly election that the SDLP had the largest percentage of any party and that includes the Ulster Unionist party.

"So let's get this into proportion. There is a need for any political party periodically to do an overhaul. We want to do it in a fundamental way.

"We want to do it as successfully as possible because we know that the new politics of devolution in the new agreement arrangement is going to require a new political base," he said.

'Dynamic young people'

The deputy leader said that the SDLP wanted to attract "young blood" but that existing members must implement structural change.

"There is a problem of age in our party, some of us are almost getting past the sellby date.

"While we need new blood and we want to get new people in who are young and dynamic who will go after the vision we have created for them, but we have to give them the machinery through which they will do that.

"If they are proper young Turks we will not have to stand down, they will knock us out of the way," he said.

'We paid the price'

The SDLP, instrumental in encouraging republicans to join the peace process, has been partly sidelined as the impasse between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists over guns and sharing power has dominated the process for more than two years.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams recently said his party would soon start to focus on strengthening its electoral base, and away from the peace process if there was no progress on restoring the suspended political institutions.

But Mr Mallon said his party had had to make the "unselfish" choice about helping to bring Sinn Fein into the process.

"Had we been less selfish we probably would have been able to maintain the party position more strongly, but we saw our responsibility as dealing with the problem of trying to get a resolution to Northern Ireland's difficult realities.

"It was a very unselfish thing for our party to do in relation to Sinn Fein. Yes it has cost us, yes we have paid the price, but the whole issue of getting peace and a lasting resolution was one that we had to make the choice about," he said.

"Given the sacrifices that the SDLP has made is it not right that we should try to widen our support across the community," he added.

SDLP assembly member Alban Maginnis said: "This is a party that is facing up to the 21st century. We are determined to renew our party in terms of its structure, organisation, vision, and voter base.

This is not a party which is tired. This is a party which is full of energy facing up to the future and trying to build a new kind of politics in Northern Ireland."

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See also:

26 Apr 00 | Northern Ireland
Hume's freedom of Derry condemned
24 Apr 00 | Northern Ireland
Party strategy as peace process falters
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