Colum Eastwood confirms European election candidacy
COLUM Eastwood has confirmed that he plans to run in next month's European election as the SDLP makes an audacious bid to ensure Northern Ireland returns two pro-Remain MEPs.
The SDLP leader has described the May 22 poll as a "unique election" and an opportunity to wrestle one of three seats from the Ulster Unionists.
The Foyle MLA expects to his candidacy ratified in the coming days.
Confirmation that the SDLP leader will contest the European election comes as Alliance leader Naomi Long revealed that she also plans to run.
Ulster Unionist Jim Nicholson announced earlier this week that he will not defend the seat he has held for almost 30 years.
Speaking to The Irish News last night, Mr Eastwood conceded that Sinn Féin's Martina Anderson and the DUP's Diane Dodds will secure the first two of three seats in the European Parliament but believes "no-one is in a better position" than him to take the final seat.
"This is our chance to send a clear message to Europe – and to London – that Northern Ireland wants to remain in the EU and that we want to cancel Brexit," he said.
"We have a very clear choice in the election on whether we elect two Remainers and one Leaver or vice-versa – there's only one party that supports Remain challenging to come third in this election."
The SDLP leader said "it would not be an easy battle" but that it would be a "tragedy to send two parties back to Europe who are advocating Brexit".
"This is our people's vote – and we want to cancel the disaster that is Brexit," he said.
"It's not about me, it's not about the SDLP – it's about Remain versus Leave."
SDLP candidate Alex Attwood secured fourth place in the 2014 European election with 81,594 votes.
The party last secured a European Parliament seat in 1999 with then leader John Hume.
Mr Eastwood said a victory next month would require "people lending us their vote on this once occasion". He said he had a "proven record of reaching across the divide".
"I'm talking to everybody, be they nationalist, unionist or other who have a very strong view that Brexit will be bad for Northern Ireland," he said.
Potential SDLP candidates Mark Durkan and Claire Hanna have been ruled out after the former leader chose to stand for Fine Gael in Dublin, while the party's former Brexit spokeswoman resigned the whip earlier this year after ties with Fianna Fáil were formalised.
Mr Eastwood said his party had "plenty of strong candidates" who could contest the European election but said it was "time for leaders to lead".
He said he did not regard his candidacy as a political gamble and would not reconsider his position as leader if defeated.
"I'm not someone who shies away from the big battles – it's important to lead from the front," he said.
"It's far from easy, it's far from inevitable but the seat is available for the first time in a long time – politics is about fighting elections."
The SDLP leader said he had discussed his decision to run with his Fianna Fáil counterpart Michéal Martin.
"We are separate parties but I have no doubt that we have Michéal's support in fighting this battle," he said.
Mr Eastwood said that if he secured an MEP's seat he "would not be double jobbing" and was likely to resign his assembly seat.
He described the current situation as a "national emergency".