Northern Ireland news

Sinn Fein has shifted focus away from border poll ‘fantasyland', says Eastwood

David Young, PA

Sinn Fein has realised it was living in fantasyland calling for a border poll at a time when people are struggling to feed their families, Colum Eastwood has said.

The SDLP leader accused his nationalist rivals of being “slow learners” as he claimed the party had been forced to shift the focus of its Assembly election strategy away from the constitutional question to the cost-of-living crisis.

Mr Eastwood was responding to comments by Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill on Tuesday when she acknowledged that people were not waking up thinking about reunification at present, rather the problems caused by soaring bills.

The Foyle MP, who accompanied several SDLP candidates to hand in their nomination papers in Belfast on Wednesday morning, accused Sinn Fein Stormont ministers of being preoccupied with pushing for a referendum when they should have been finding ways to provide support to families struggling amid rocketing inflation rates.

“It’s slow learners as usual,” Mr Eastwood told the PA news agency.

“We have been saying to them for years to stop calling for a border poll ‘now’.

“That work has to be done of course, the conversation has to be heard, but people are struggling every single day and Sinn Fein four weeks out from an election are now beginning to talk about people’s problems instead of talking about border polls.

“We’ve been doing that forever. I would prefer actually if the Sinn Fein ministers, the Finance Minister (Conor Murphy) and the Communities Minister (Deirdre Hargey), who are in charge of actually getting money into people’s pockets, had been doing that during the last number of months.

“When we’ve been saying for six or seven months that there’s a cost-of-living crisis, we need an action plan, we needed a taskforce, we needed action, we needed money into people’s pockets, Sinn Fein sat on their hands and talked about border polls.

“They are now realising, because they’re clearly hearing on the doors that people are struggling. And that’s the number one issue. As John Hume said many years ago ‘you can’t eat a flag’. We’ve been focused on trying to deal with people’s problems, Sinn Fein have been in fantasyland.

“Now it’s time we all got round the table and dealt with some of these real issues.”

Meanwhile, Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, said that people were not being woken up in the middle of the night worrying about a united Ireland.

Speaking at a candidate launch event in Belfast, she said: “Assembly elections are never about the constitutional question.

“Nothing that we do in the Assembly will change the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, only a referendum of all the people will.

“Voting for people because of their position on the constitutional question is a bit of a waste of a vote because you will have your own vote to cast in any referendum.

“I think perhaps the stance that Sinn Fein have taken on this is reflective of what they are hearing on the doors too. People are worried about how to heat their homes, feed their families, put fuel in their car to go to work, the length of the health service waiting lists, they are concerned about their children’s education.

“Whilst people may have aspirations, either to remain in the UK or for a united Ireland, at the moment those are not the things that are waking them up in the middle of the night.”

Mr Eastwood joined SDLP deputy leader and north Belfast candidate Nichola Mallon, west Belfast candidate Paul Doherty and south Antrim candidate Roisin Lynch as they handed in nomination papers at the Electoral Office in Belfast.

Northern Ireland has not had a functioning powersharing executive since early February when DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson collapsed the administration by pulling out First Minister Paul Givan in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

There are significant doubts whether a new executive will be formed following May’s election, given the DUP has insisted it will not return until changes are made to the contentious Irish Sea trading arrangements.

Powersharing rules mean a properly functioning administration can only be formed if the largest unionist and largest nationalist parties agree to enter the joint office of the first and deputy first ministers.

Mr Eastwood said the DUP’s position was “shameful”.

“It’s absolutely clear, all that we’re hearing on the ground is that people are really struggling, struggling to heat their homes, struggling to feed their family,” he said.

“And it isn’t just people who are normally on the poverty line, although we need to help them massively, it’s people who are out working every day and coming home and having to make a decision about whether they can turn the heating on.

“And that’s all in the context of Jeffrey Donaldson walking away from government. It’s just shameful, really.

“What we want is people to get around the table, to get on with the work and to try to put money into people’s pockets straight after this election.

“There’s no more time for political games, or machinations with political parties, they (voters) want politicians to get back to work, get their sleeves rolled up and to get on with the job.”

Responding to Mr Eastwood’s claims, a Sinn Fein spokesman said: “Sinn Fein wants to see Irish unity.

“There is no contradiction in our commitment to powersharing, co-operating with others and delivering for all in the political institutions and our support for Irish unity.

“Sinn Fein is committed to tackling the cost-of-living crisis facing workers and families, getting the Executive back up and running and investing an additional billion pounds in the health service to tackle unacceptable waiting lists.

“This election is about real change and about the future. It is not a border poll. That will come in time and we must prepare for it through a Citizens’ Assembly where all views can be heard.”

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