Northern Ireland news

Colum Eastwood berates Stormont's big two over '15 years of either bad government or no government'

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood addresses the party's conference. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

COLUM Eastwood has attacked Stormont's two biggest parties, accusing the DUP and Sinn Féin of overseeing 15 years of "either bad government or no government".

Speaking to SDLP members and elected representatives at the party's first conference since April 2018, the Foyle MLA said that in the time since the St Andrews Agreement, the executive's two ruling parties had failed to deliver "one big achievement".

He told the audience at the Seamus Heaney Home Place in Bellaghy that while there were limitations to devolved government, other administrations had sought to mitigate the impact of the cost of living crisis.

"The Scottish government was putting money directly into people's pockets to help with the cost-of-living crisis and increasing the benefits they have control over by 6 per cent – and yet for the majority of people here struggling to pay their bills or fill up the car – not a penny of support from the Sinn Féin finance minister," he said.

Mr Eastwood said Sinn Féin standing up to the DUP was "important – but it is only one part of the job".

"People also placed them in power to deliver for their needs – to deliver better jobs, better education, and better housing," he said.

"15 years in power has revealed one thing – that's the part of the job they are clearly not up to."

But the SDLP leader was especially scathing in his criticism of DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who he said had taken some "desperate decisions" in recent months.

He said the DUP had campaigned for a hard Brexit but "can't deal with the damage of their own actions".

"As long as a hard Brexit is imposed, the protocol is here to stay," he said.

"It is after all the protocol signed, sealed, and delivered by the DUP's supposed allies in the Tory party."

Mr Eastwood said that rather than "running after Tory prime ministers", the DUP and unionism would be "far better served if they sat down with the rest of us – their neighbours – and we all tried to do the very best by all of our people".

However, in what he conceded was an unusual move, the SDLP leader praised Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann, describing his performance throughout the Covid pandemic as "exceptional".

"He has been the right man at the right time – and it is only right that we give credit where credit is due," he said.

"All of us in the SDLP thank him for the calm leadership and commitment he has shown through the most difficult of times."

The Foyle MP praised the contribution of key workers over the past two years and urged the next executive to "pledge a pay rise of 6 per cent to acknowledge the immense struggle that our nurses and carers have undertaken against this virus".

However, he said she was "deeply ashamed" of Stormont's response to the cost of living crisis.

"Because it should shame every political leader that families have been so badly let down," he said.

"It should - most of all - shame Jeffrey Donaldson that he has refused to nominate a first minister to deal with this emergency and release the £300 million that Stormont is sitting on."

He praised Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan's unsuccessful efforts to draft emergency legislation and "find a way to unlock that £300 million to get money to every household".

Mr Eastwood said now that Stormont was dissolved he would work alongside South Belfast MP Claire Hanna to seek to have the money released via Westminster.

"For once, the secretary of state also needs to make himself useful and make a direct intervention to allow ministers to access and spend this £300m," he said.

He noted that it was the first time the party had come together since the passing Seamus Mallon, Ivan Cooper, Austin Currie, John Dallat and John and Pat Hume.

He paid tribute to their legacy and the "inheritance these islands enjoy because of the lives they led".

"Whatever age you are, whatever background you are from - we all now live in the Ireland that John Hume imagined," he said.

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