By David Young, PA
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has pledged to stick with the job for the long haul, insisting his party is best placed to convince the undecideds to back Irish unity.
Ahead of his conference speech at the weekend, the Foyle MP conceded the SDLP was in a “bit of a dip” after dropping down to the fifth-largest party in the North in last year’s bruising Assembly election.
But Mr Eastwood maintains the SDLP is playing the long game and will be well-placed for what he predicts will be a new emerging political landscape on the island post-Brexit.
“I’m in it for the long term, because I think this is a long-term project,” he told the PA news agency.
“And we’ve never been under any illusions about the difficulties that we were facing, the political context has been very tough for us, as it has for some other parties, but we can see a way out of this.”
As the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches, the party that played such a pivotal role in delivering the historic peace deal now finds itself without the electoral strength to secure a post in any ministerial executive that might be formed if the current powersharing impasse is resolved. It is now the lead opposition party at Stormont.
Its vote share slipped by three percentage points on the 2017 Assembly election to 9 per cent in last May’s vote, and recent opinion polls have suggested the forthcoming local elections could deliver another chastening outcome, with one survey this week placing the party at just 6.7 per cent support.
Mr Eastwood said he is unconvinced by the polls, insisting they should come with a “health warning”.
“We’re always ready for tough elections, I’ve been through enough, but I think we’re going to do well in this,” he said.
“We’ve very good candidates right across the board, some new, some more experienced, young and not so young – all really good, committed community workers. And I think that’ll help them get through the election.”
Elected SDLP leader in 2015, Mr Eastwood acknowledges there are things he could have done better in the past eight years.
“I always think you can do better,” he said.
“Right now, we’re in a bit of a dip, we had a very difficult Assembly election, frankly because the context was so hard.”
He claims nationalists were galvanised to back Sinn Féin in response to DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s failure during the campaign to confirm his party would definitely serve as deputy First Minister alongside a republican First Minister.
“When Jeffrey Donaldson told nationalists they couldn’t have a First Minister, I mean there was only going to be one response to that,” he claimed.
“We’re kind of still in that context, because the mandate hasn’t been fulfilled yet (due to the Stormont impasse).
“So, we’re going to stay in suspended animation around that, I think, until we get Stormont back up and running and normal politics can resume.
“But we’re in this for the long haul, the project that we’re involved in is about building a new Ireland.
“That’s a long-term project, it needs the SDLP. If the SDLP didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it. But I’m determined to lead the party in this phase, and to convincing people that a different kind of the future is possible.
“I think I can do a good job with that and I think I’ve proven that. But there’s a lot more to do.”
The SDLP has established a New Ireland Commission to develop its approach to unification and examine how a united Ireland might look like and function.
Mr Eastwood said that work would be one of the party’s key priorities going forward.
He said the commission’s work has already involved a lot of conversations with people from a unionist background to help develop the party’s understanding of their misgivings about unity and develop policies to ensure their culture would be accommodated.
“The SDLP is in a moment of real change, actually we can see the country is going through a moment of real change post-Brexit and all of that,” he said.
“So we now have a renewed mission, a new mission really to build a movement for a new Ireland.
“And that’s what we’re going to focus on, you’ll see us talking about that a lot more, you’ll see us talking about that at the weekend, because I frankly think that, 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, it’s a moment to think ‘what’s next?’.
“Because I think people of my generation, who were full of hope around the time of the Good Friday Agreement, wanted to see major change, and we have seen major change, but it’s not enough.
“And we can reform Stormont and do all that, but none of that is going to be enough to fulfil the ambitions of a generation who are hungry for more.
“And that’s why I think now is the time to have the conversation about a new Ireland.
“And the SDLP, in my view, is uniquely placed, actually, to bring people with us, to convince people.
“I don’t think Sinn Féin can convince too many people outside of their own voter base. The Alliance Party aren’t interested in this conversation, they’re not interested in talking about whether we should be in the European Union, what our health service should look like, how society should be ordered on an all-Ireland basis, and that’s up to them.
“But when this conversation really heats up, it’s going to be very difficult for people to avoid this.
“But we think we’ve a unique role in convincing people to come over to our side and to embrace a different kind of future.
“So that is the new mission of the SDLP.”
Mr Eastwood will address delegates at the SDLP conference in St Columb’s Hall in Derry on Saturday afternoon.