SDLP puts cost of living crisis front and centre of Stormont campaign
THE SDLP has put combating the cost of living crisis at the heart of its election campaign and unveiled a series of measures aimed largely at helping the least well off.
The party launched its manifesto in Dungannon yesterday with a pledge to give every household £200, in a move that it says will cost up to £167m. However, the universal payment will be complemented by a range of targeted interventions to help poorer households mitigate the impact of rising prices.
The SDLP advocates a £100 emergency fuel payment scheme for those on lower incomes and an extension of free school meal support throughout the holidays, both running to the end of the year at a cost of £8m and £46.3m, respectively.
It said the plans will be paid for by passing emergency legislation to free-up £300m-plus of unallocated Barnet funding, which the party says will be its "first priority" after returning to the assembly.
Elsewhere, the SDLP proposes reducing the cap on energy companies' profits from the current 2 per cent threshold, while also calling on the British government to introduce a one-year VAT holiday for domestic energy charges – describing increased VAT returns from rising bills as "unacceptable".
The manifesto's other big headline is an additional £1bn to be spent on transforming the health service in line with various recommendations that have yet to be implemented. The SDLP says £200m a year will be secured through monitoring rounds to "address the elective care backlog and close the capacity gap".
There is also a pledge to more than double investment in social housing to £374m a year, which the party says will be funded through a combination of financial measures, alongside a proposal for the provision of 30 hours-a-week pre-school childcare.
The party launched its manifesto in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, where its candidate Adam Gannon is hoping to recapture an assembly seat lost in 2017 after the number of MLAs was reduced from 108 to 90.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood used the launch to accuse the DUP and Sinn Féin of distracting the electorate from the cost of living crisis with arguments about the protocol and a border poll. He said during campaigning not a single member of the public had complained about the post-Brexit trade arrangements or mentioned "who will or won't be first minister".
"While other people want to talk about protocols and polls, we're determined to lift people out of poverty," he said.
"The reality is though after 15 years of crisis and failure and walking in and walking out of government, the two parties that are at the very top have failed this community and they don't want you to talk about it."
While not mentioning Sinn Féin by name, the Foyle MP said his party's policies had been copied by rivals, a move he characterised as "flattery".
"We've got a good plan and it's such a good plan, others are now copying it," he said.
"We hope after this election everyone else will agree with our proposals."
Mr Eastwood was also asked about his party's partnership with Fianna Fáil, announced to much fanfare in 2019.
He would not be drawn on the current status of the link-up but insisted previous engagement with Taoiseach Micheál Martin had helped secure a €1bn ( £840m) pot to be spent on cross-border projects through the Shared Island Fund.
"That's the legacy of those conversations and we're very proud actually that over the next five years you're going to see real change on the ground across the border and in border communities because of the work that we did there," he said.
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said Stormont's dominant parties had a 15-year record of "broken promises and failure to deliver".
"I can understand why many people believe that change in this place isn't possible but with the cost-of-living emergency, people literally cannot afford for politics here not to change," she said.