Political news

Colum Eastwood ponders future in wake of Westminster poll disaster

Losing three MPs may look worse than careless but SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tells Political Correspondent John Manley that he's facing up to his responsibilities and having the necessary conversations

Colum Eastwood says the SDLP lost its three MPs due to a 'poisonous' political context. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood says he won't shirk his responsibilities when it comes to the party's disastrous performance in last month's Westminster election where it lost all three of its seats.

That said, he thinks the result was not of the SDLP's making.

Mr Eastwood believes there was a predictable response from unionism to nationalism's gains in March's assembly election and that the Westminster poll became a "battle between the DUP and Sinn Féin", with the SDLP as collateral damage.

"We lost three very good public servants who’d given their lives to Ireland, the SDLP, and their communities," he says.

"It was nothing they did or the party did but the political context was so poisonous that it was impossible for us to retain seats in those circumstances."

The result has naturally prompted much soul-searching within the SDLP but the leader is giving little away beyond saying that "conversations" are taking place.

Asked if he believes the SDLP brand will still exist in a decade's time, Mr Eastwood responds in the affirmative though it's rather muted.

"What’s most important is what happens with our politics," he adds.

"There’s a lot of people out there who want to see a constitutional nationalist force that is committed to reconciling the people of this country and providing proper representation for our people – that’s what we’ve always done and I believe that kind of politics will survive well beyond the next 10 years."

To some observers, the best route for safeguarding that sort of constitutional politics is through a merger with Fianna Fáil.

Brexit, the SDLP leader believes, has created a new context for Irish politics under which the conventional framework is shifting.

"We always think nationally, we always speak nationally, we provide the answers to the national question and have been at the forefront in shaping the architecture that understands all of that."

But while Mr Eastwood concedes "that conversation (about hooking-up with Fianna Fáil) is already in the ether" - and much of what he says implies it's an option being given serious consideration - the Foyle MLA insists he hasn't pitched the idea to Micheál Martin.

As you might expect, he isn't optimistic about the implications of the Westminster election's outcome.

"I don’t think the huge Sinn Féin vote will actually satisfy anything within the nationalist community," he says.

"It’s just put us into an arm wrestle that nobody’s going to win."

He claims Sinn Féin is deluded if it believes its electoral success can further the cause of a united Ireland.

"It’s going to be very hard for Sinn Féin to convince anybody from a unionist background that they are the people that can unite the people here.

"I think too much damage has been done… they tend too readily into the place that divides us rather than unites us."

The Foyle MLA argues that Sinn Féin has been good at winning votes but "totally and utterly unsuccessful" in its political project.

"Sinn Féin's notion that somehow a united Ireland is vested in their electoral success has just not worked.

"They constantly rhyme off how many TDs, MLAs and councillors they have, as if that somehow unites us – it hasn't and in many ways it divides us."

He claims that Sinn Féin has adopted many SDLP policies, from supporting power-sharing and the EU to calling for a public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal and advocating post-Brexit special status for the north.

"I'm not sour about it because our job is to persuade people about our party policies but we seem to persuade them quite quickly."

The SDLP, Mr Eastwood adds, were first to call time on Stormont's status quo - though he doesn't want credit for January's collapse of the assembly.

He believes the current crisis could've been avoided had Sinn Féin's support for an RHI inquiry and Arlene Foster's removal from office come earlier: "They eventually got it and capitalized on it but they got there too late in my view and now we’re in this crisis that we’re finding it hard to get out of."

The SDLP leader believes a deal to restore devolution "wasn't far away" but the longer Stormont is off-line the harder it will be to "patch it back together".

However, without a fundamental change in attitude that sees the two main protagonists embrace the spirit of power-sharing then the restored institutions may be short-lived, he says.

"What people want is a government that actually does things for them and delivers real and lasting change.

"If it doesn’t do that then it becomes unsustainable again and it won’t be able to weather any storms – and there are plenty of storms coming."

Mr Eastood meanwhile claims the DUP-Tory confidence and supply arrangement will "irreparably damage" Theresa May in Britain and that the consultative committee made up of the two parties' MPs could become a "very, very dangerous thing for Northern Ireland politics" if there is no executive to deliver the £1bn agreed as part of the deal.

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