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Seamus Mallon backs Colum Eastwood for SDLP top job

Seamus Mallon and spaniel Jessie alongside SDLP leadership candidate Colum Eastwood. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

COLUM Eastwood's bid to lead the SDLP has received a major boost on Thursday with an endorsement from former Stormont Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon.

Just over two weeks out from the crucial leadership vote, the one-time Newry and Armagh MP said he believed the Foyle MLA could unite the SDLP and end the "stagnation and negativity" that he believes has beset the party in recent years.

Mr Eastwood (32) launched his bid to unseat SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell last month.

In the wake of May's general election a host of party grandees and current representatives called for Dr McDonnell to relinquish the party's top job.

The SDLP saw its share of the vote fall by 2.6 per cent in the Westminster poll, although it did hold its three seats, including the leader's own constituency of South Belfast – albeit by a very small margin.

Those calling for Dr McDonnell to step down included Mr Mallon, former SDLP deputy leader Brid Rodgers and Foyle MP Mark Durkan, who led the party for nine years up to 2010.

Speaking on Thursday night ahead of Mr Eastwood's meeting with SDLP members in south Armagh, Mr Mallon said he believed the Foyle MLA could lead a united party that would build on past achievements and win future elections.

"Unless nationalists and unionists can develop an accommodation and better understanding with each other the possibility of further constitutional change is unlike – this is the job the SDLP now needs to undertake," the former Newry and Armagh MP said.

Mr Mallon said that in his maiden Westminster speech almost 30 years ago, he said that peace was "not simply the absence of war but a state of mind and a disposition for benevolence, confidence and justice".

"That message is as important today as it was then," he said.

"Confidence and benevolence are almost totally absent today from our political structures – a new leader of the SDLP with a new style of leadership can end this stagnation and negativity and return us all to the path of proper peace building."

Mr Eastwood said he was delighted to be endorsed by a "political giant such as Seamus Mallon".

"The democratic struggle that Seamus and others undertook in the face of violence and intransigence has allowed my generation the opportunity to live in peace and to build a new society," he said.

The former Derry mayor said his leadership campaign, which was launched in Belfast last week, had invigorated the SDLP.

"I urge everyone to join me in uniting the SDLP and preparing the party for the next election," he said.

The leadership battle will come to a head at the SDLP annual conference in Armagh on Saturday, November 14.

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