McCann meets… Alex Attwood MLA

I met with the SDLP’s candidate for the upcoming European elections, Alex Attwood up at Stormont to discuss his views on Europe, Nationalism, SDLP and the Executive.


When we began, Alex told me about the impact that his parents, particularly his mother had on his politics of looking after others and standing up for the democratic way of doing things. These values that he was taught as a child informed his later choices as a student when he joined the SDLP.

But, what about some of the contentious issues such as the Hunger Strikes that he faced growing up?

I believed that there was a political resolution to the situation in the prisons…but others choose to escalate it. If you believe some of those who have spoken about the Hunger Strikes some people in the Republican leadership choose to escalate it, not just the approach being adopted by the Thatcher government at that time.

I then pressed on to ask him did he feel that have gone through all of this and see his party decline electorally did he feel that the work the SDLP was worth it?

Unlike others who resisted the will of the people of Ireland the SDLP live with the democracy of the people of Ireland, even when it doesn’t work to our favour that’s the purpose of being an Irish national democrat, you do not mess with the will of the people of Ireland and others did at a huge price and a huge cost. Because of that huge price and huge cost there was an imperative for the SDLP and Hume in particular to travel very far down roads that needed to be travelled in order to create the possibilities of peace.

I wondered what the former Executive Minister thought about the possibility of opposition.

I was the member of our party who argued that we shouldn’t go into government in 2011 and the party in my view whilst we had to have that conversation, the party decided that we should go into government, because the politics of accommodation, partnership and being inclusive was something held very dear by the party….I think we do have to have a conversation about opposition, the SDLP recommended to the British government that in the next mandate there should be a provision for opposition.

Pressing on I asked him about his tendency to take unpopular decisions during this time a Environment Minister.

I’m not driven by being popular; I am driven by where is the radical and bold place to be in our politics that brings the maximum change in the fastest space of the time to the benefit of people.

I asked Attwood about his controversial decision to stop John Lewis from coming to Sprucefield (26 mins in) to which he stated that he believed that there was a necessary rebalancing that needed to go on with our shopping facilities and that Lewis had the potential to hurt places like Craigavon, Banbridge and Newry if it were to be placed in Sprucefield. He believes that Lewis could have potential with the re-development of the Cathedral Quarter following the re-location of the University of Ulster.

I  followed up with another controversial issue namely the SPAD bill and put to him the critique that the party had dithered during the debate;

I remember meeting when we were discussing it and with everything else that was going on at that time and there was probably a lot of things going on at that time, my own thinking wasn’t as clear headed. But, very quickly it became clear headed about what was the right approach in that regard and that would have been the approach that Seamus Mallon articulated in that regard.

I was fascinated by the Attwood’s explanation about the evolution of his views on this topic, which I thought might of explained his reaction to Gareth Gordon after the Ann Travers meeting as he said

I had a view that the media had to be very respectful towards victims and survivors, including Ann and I wasn’t impressed by the media, in my view, Ann might have a different view on it but it was my sense of things. It wasn’t about how I felt or the party felt, it was my sense of how to as I saw it which might not be how Ann saw it show the maximum respect towards victims and survivors. The media have to do their job but I do believe you have to skate carefully when you come to some issues.

When it comes to the European elections Attwood is determined that this election will not just be about the usual politics that our elections are about but also contain serious issues such as the referendum and our relationship with the European Union. Attwood states that while he is not uncritical of Europe, he is still strongly pro-Europe for its economic, environmental and cultural benefits.

Attwood believes that since John Hume stepped down from the European parliament that Northern Ireland has been missing opportunities in Europe and that we are not on the ‘inside track’ in gaining full advantages of our membership.

When I put it to him that Anna Lo’s candidacy could split that pro-European vote, Attwood actually welcomed the opportunity for pro-European voices to come forward and speak up during this election as he believes Unionist parties will go in the opposite direction.

Overall, Attwood said he’s in this election to win it and will definitely be putting in the man hours to pull off a victory. If the Unionist vote fragments enough and he picks up enough transfers he might just do it but time will tell if he can pull it off.

Full interview available on MixCloud.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs

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