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Eastwood's youth could be a blessing or a curse

In just six-and-a-half weeks the SDLP must decide whether to usher in a new era or say no thank you Mr Eastwood. Political Correspondent John Manley weighs up the prospects for young leadership contender Colum Eastwood

Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood believes it's time for change. Picture by Hugh Russell

It's notable that as Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood confirmed his plan to challenge Alasdair McDonnell for the SDLP leadership a number of media organisations supplemented their coverage with an item entitled 'Who is Colum Eastwood?'

It's fair to say the 32-year-old is not the most immediately recognisable face among his party's 14 MLAs.

He does have the distinction of being appointed Derry's youngest ever mayor when aged 27, while more recently he attracted some adverse publicity for carrying the coffin of a long-time friend who was buried with paramilitary trappings.

Otherwise though, his political career to date has been pretty undistinguished.

But with involvement in the SDLP dating back almost two decades, Mr Eastwood is well known to those who will cast their votes at Armagh's City Hotel on November 14 and his intention to challenge Alasdair McDonnell has been flagged for some time.

Among the SDLP's assembly group, he is regarded as very capable. One party source described him as "pretty sharp, good on detail and of sound judgement".

He can already be guaranteed the support of at least a handful of his Stormont colleagues and in all likelihood two of its three MPs.

One clear disadvantage facing the Foyle MLA is his youth and apparent lack of experience. Beyond his time as mayor, he'll struggle to cite anything that highlights his leadership capabilities.

Using the next month-and-a-half to convince those who haven't yet decided what way to vote is therefore crucial to whether he is successful or not and with a party whose membership is instinctively conservative, he has his work cut out.

In Alasdair McDonnell he is also up against a seasoned campaigner. The South Belfast MP, a veteran of countless elections and two leadership battles, knows all there is to know about the party workings and its officers.

But by the same token Mr Eastwood's youth could work to his advantage.

He is less than twice the age of the incumbent and is very much part of the post-conflict generation, where talk of a new beginning and a fresh brand of nationalism sounds sincere.

Coming from Derry and casting himself as a natural successor to John Hume will also give him an edge.

Given the SDLP's continued slide under its current leader, there is undoubtedly a significant number within the party calling for change at the top.

If Dr McDonnell survives this push, it is essential that the party enjoys a notable lift at the forthcoming assembly elections, otherwise the SDLP will be returning to a similar contest this time next year.

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