United in Opposition: SDLP leader Colum Eastwood to address UUP Conference on Saturday

UUP15 setThe UUP has been clear that it’s the senior party in the new NI Assembly Opposition, and Colum Eastwood has been careful to distance himself from being labelled ‘the deputy leader of the Opposition’. Setting up the @NIAOpposition account on Twitter and branding it with the UUP logo also sent out an ‘ourselves alone’ message.

But Saturday will see a symbolic demonstration of finding common interests amidst other policy diversity when SDLP leader Colum Eastwood takes to the Ramada Hotel stage at the UUP conference in what he calls “a demonstration of what genuine cooperation looks like”.

The first two Opposition Days at the Assembly have certainly not demonstrated strategic cooperation.

It’s the first time that an SDLP leader will have been welcomed to a UUP conference, but it’s not the first time that an SDLP member or representative has participated. Back in 2011, fellow ex-UTV journalist Fearghal McKinney chaired a panel discussion at the UUP conference held that year in Armagh City Hotel. (That was also the year that Environment Minister and SDLP MLA Alex Attwood addressed the Green Party conference.) And in 2007, the then Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie addressed UUP delegates at their conference.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt explains:

“Behind the scenes, there is a lot of joined up work going on between the SDLP and ourselves, but this is largely unseen and Colum and I are conscious that people want to see tangible signs of cooperation.”

He suggests that “it’s something the two parties of the Executive are unlikely to match in the foreseeable future”.

“We will not agree on everything, but rather than dwell on what divides us, I am focused on the common ground, and importantly, the fact that Colum and I both want Northern Ireland to work, which opens huge possibilities for cooperating on the bread and butter issues of the economy, education, housing and the health of all our people.”

The visiting SDLP leader Colum Eastwood describes his participation on Saturday as “two leaders of two parties with different views coming together not in our own narrow self-interest, but in the interests of people across this region who deserve better from government”.

“It’s the principle of partnership, ingrained in our institutions by the SDLP and UUP and degraded by the current government, that brings us together on issues of common cause where we can make a positive difference to the lives of the people we represent. That commitment to cooperation does not mean absolute unanimity or uniformity – and nor should it. But it is a position of strength and it’s the kind of cooperation that people want to see in our politics on issues like housing, homelessness and our health services.”

He adds:

“People across the North realise that Irish Nationalism and Unionism can never hope to seamlessly fit. However, our difference does not diminish our ability to pursue the commonality of our immediate cause. Both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists share the common ground of wanting to make Northern Ireland work. That’s a healthy common ground to hold for today and tomorrow.

“The constitutional change of the future will be the product of persuasion.”

Assuming relations are still good, this stunt symbolic invitation will no doubt be reciprocated at the SDLP conference after Christmas when Mike Nesbitt will be expected to bring fraternal greetings from the other end of the Opposition benches to the nationalist party’s delegates.

Full visible unity is unlikely to follow [Ed – that would be an ecumenical matter!] but given the well established model of DUP/Sinn Féin working together, the SDLP and UUP do need to practice their joint messaging.

We didn’t see Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers addressing each other’s conferences during the ConDem coalition at Westminster.

But the occasional set piece UUP+SDLP appearance is sensible so that these local parties practice expressing in public the common aspirations and policies that they can cooperate over lest they let their focus and energy drift to the differences.

One party alone will not be able to challenge the Executive. It’ll take coalitions – and more than two party coalitions – to make any meaningful dent in the two party Executive policy steamroller.

As long as Colum’s appearance doesn’t upstage Mike’s speech in the media coverage …

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • Will McConnell

    The way I see it now there are two groups both falling over each other to see who can make a better version of the peace process. That’s a very good thing.

  • chrisjones2

    They clearly have policy differences on ‘the border issue’ but on many social issues share a great deal of commonanality – for example on the recent poll on abortion the DUP and SDLP were both the slightly more socially conservative, possibly refelecting their old voter bases.

    To make Stormont work we really need them both to up their game and coordoinate to hold Marlene’s feet to the fire on so many issues. Indeed our beloved First Ministers vehemenece towards her old party colleagues (she doesnt like reminded of that perhaps) smacks of fear of what might evolve. Good

  • Tochais Siorai

    Well, he better keep it simple if the UUP party political broadcast last night is anything to go by. Are they trying to attract the under 10s into the party?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Everyone needs to up their game, both Brexit (due to connectivity loss and increased negative jingoism) and the post Brexit referendum side effects (AAA fall, sterling fall, inflation rise … Possibly interest rate rise) make it much more difficult to break even.

  • Declan Doyle

    A stunt? Really? Is that not unkind. Could we in the past ever have dreamed of SF/DUP sharing power. Or a nationalist leader ever addressing a unionist conference? Lets try to look beyond our own narrow cynicism and recognise the progress that has been made, and the potential for future cooperation.

  • Dan

    I’m sure they’ll be tuning in in their tens to hear the speech.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’m not an SDLP supporter (or a nationalist, for that matter) but I respect what Colum is trying to do here.

    Unfortunately, from where I’m standing, it looks like he has been shafted by the UUP. The characterisation of those who campaigned against the old Stormont government as people who opposed democracy/terrorists reads like a calculated insult directed at the party which is most closely associated with the civil rights movement.

    It’s not reasonable to expect unionist politicians to get down on their knees and beg for forgiveness – and of course all of this is a two way street – but couldn’t they at least have a bit of respect for the opposing position ? Why bother inviting opposing political leaders to speak at your conference and run an ad about how their political ancestors were anti-democratic ? Would Mike Nesbitt show up at a conference with a party running an ad about what a bastard Carson was or why the UVF were wrong to threaten force over home rule ?

  • Brendan Heading

    FYI – SF are attacking this on twitter today.

  • Declan Doyle


  • chrisjones2

    Well many of SFs followers might have been surprised …some still are