Colum Eastwood: “it’s a good time to move on from the Good Friday Agreement generation”

Colum Eastwood squareThe nomination deadline for any SDLP leadership challenges closed on Friday. 32 year old Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood has confirmed that he will accept the nominations of the nine branches (a minimum of five is required) and will stand against sitting leader Belfast South Alasdair McDonnell MP at the party’s November conference.

Interviewed today at lunchtime, Colum outlined his political experience to date.

I was elected as an SDLP councillor when I was 22, was the youngest ever Mayor of Derry at 27 and elected to the Assembly the year after that. I’ve been a long time campaigner and political activist and I’ve got youth and experience I think on my side.

Pushed on his experience, Colum pointed out that “anyone who runs for the leadership of a political party, it would be very strange if they’d been elected as a leader of another political party before that!”

I’ve been around for a long time in politics … I’ve worked with ministers very closely. I’ve worked in my constituency. I suppose Alasdair McDonnell was never a minister before he became leader! … I’ve been very close to John Hume and Mark Durkan and other political leaders of the party over the years. I know what’s involved. I know the challenges. I just think it’s time for a change and time for a new generation to step forward.

Over the coming days and weeks Colum will outline his policy platform based around “partnership, reconciliation and making Northern Ireland work” and refine his pitch for leadership.

In the meantime he said he was “determined to make the argument that we need a new type of politics in Northern Ireland”.

People are fed up with the constant bickering, constant threats to the institutions, constant stagnation in terms of the economy, and the lack of delivery for people who need investment in them.

We have constant negotiations here, constant peace processing. I think what people want to see is the negotiations finished with a good all-encompassing deal to deal with the issues and then we will move on to a new normal

I think the only way to move on is to have a new generation of politicians coming to the fore – I think that’s important for politics – because whilst people have gotten us to this particular stage I think it is time to move forward and move on from that generation … I think all parties could do with a generational shift.

… It’s not about personalities or age or anything, it’s just about ideas. It’s about understanding that yes the SDLP have had a couple of difficult elections and we have another important election coming up. It’s a good time to change. It’s a good time to move on from the Good Friday Agreement generation, I think we have to move beyond that now.

As they say in Derry: “eaten bread soon forgotten”. Our party has achieved immense things over the years. But I want to start outlining where the SDLP can go for the next generation.

Deputy leader Delores Kelly – for whom Colum stepped aside in the 2011 deputy leadership election – spoke highly of Colum in an interview recorded by the Off the Record blog at the SDLP conference in 2014.

I have to say that I’m very encouraged by the number of young people we have coming up in the next generation who spoke at conference both last night and today. Last night we had our young MLA Colum Eastwood – a young man from Derry – very passionate, very much believes in the social justice values and the left wing values of the party, very able, in my view has a very clear vision of taking the party forward. We have Nichola Mallon and we have Claire Hanna. I actually think it may well be whenever we next look to select a leader we look to the next generation and I’d be very happy to support any of those candidates moving forward. [Delores Kelly, 16/11/2014]

Later in the interview he described the last couple of elections as “our worst elections, ever”.

That’s why I’m running. We have a challenge in terms of the Assembly election. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I could fix the SDLP in a couple of months … We’ll have a conversation with ourselves and then we’ll start a conversation with the public that I think will allow us to convince them that we’re relevant and we’re important for the future of the country.

The next election is not going to be an easy election for us given the last couple of elections… [Alan interrupts: it could be another bad election?] It could well be, but I think we need to make a change now to stop it being a very bad election.

Colum insisted that the reporting of Alasdair McDonnell’s comments last week ‘had nothing to do with” his decision to challenge.

Only last week I argued with someone that Alasdair McDonnell would escape challenge at this year’s election since the political talks at Stormont were more important than settling the party’s internal squabbles about leadership and direction. So why challenge now?

The lifting of the threat of an early election has produced “a feeling of stability” and created the space for a leadership vote.

The last few weeks have been very difficult for politics here, constant threat to the institutions. I think everybody now things that the institutions will survive [until an election in May] … the ground is now clear for a leadership challenge.

I’ve been nominated, I didn’t seek the nomination, I didn’t campaign for it. I’m very happy to be nominated, I’m very honoured and I’m determined to take up that challenge … I understand I have convincing to do. I think I can do it over the next seven weeks and I look forward to the big conversation with the party membership and supporters.

So what challenges would Colum like the SDLP to address under his potential leadership? The party is more first division than premier league these days …

I believe in a positive progressive nationalism that understands that you don’t fall into a united Ireland with basket-case North. I want to see Northern Ireland working. That takes work, that takes effort, that takes partnership. But it’s also about persuading people that a united Ireland is the best idea around in the long term. But it doesn’t work without Northern Ireland working.

I want to see nationalism being about more than where people are born and more about what people believe in. Because I believe we can sell a positive idea of a united Ireland in the long term to people of any background. So politics then becomes about ideas and not about birth … I understand we’re not one of the top two parties now, that’s why I want to change it.

The DUP and Sinn Féin are now ‘the establishment’ and have been in power for eight years. Sinn Féin have been the largest nationalist party for 15 years. I think you’d struggle to find a lot of people out there that think the DUP/Sinn Féin government have achieved very much at all. The economy has stagnated. We’re still dealing with massive levels of underachievement in terms of people from working class areas. There’s been no investment in skills and infrastructure to try and turn around our economy.

He criticised the singular economic focus on Corporate Tax.

They only ever talk about one fiscal lever: Corporation Tax. We pretend that lowering Corporation Tax can change the economy on its own. I think lowering Corporation Tax is a good idea but it’s only a good idea if you invest in infrastructure and skills. You invest in young people, you invest in universities, you invest in roads and digital connectivity. We don’t do that here.

We’re in negotiations that will probably lead to lowering Corporation Tax as part of the overall deal but at the same time we’re cutting student numbers. People tell us all these companies are going to come to Northern Ireland to set up. Where are they going to get the work force because they’re all in England or Scotland or Dublin and they’ve all graduated from there and the rule is 80% of them don’t come home.

I think that’s a major area of policy we need to reflect upon and understand because there’s a laziness that’s crept into policy development in the North because the major parties have infected the political policy-making process with constant bickering around the past and that hasn’t been good for policy development.

Would his brand of “partnership” include staying within the Executive.

I think we should have a place called ‘Opposition’ … and we’re up for looking at the detail around John McCallister’s bill .. I would never lead the SDLP into an election saying that we’re going into Opposition.

So does Colum rule out going into Opposition before the election?

No, I wouldn’t rule it out. I would say that we would be seeking a mandate to govern. We would also be absolutely committed to maintaining power-sharing as the essence of these institutions … If it came about that after the election we couldn’t support a Programme For Government – like we didn’t support the last one – then we would look very carefully at the issue of Opposition and if we thought that our people would be best served by us in opposition then of course I’d be very happy to recommend that to the party.

But that would be after the next election? Does he see himself joining Mike Nesbitt?

(laughs) I don’t think that’s a good idea in any circumstance! But it’s definitely not a good idea to play politics with these institutions and to try to create some sort of stunt around Opposition. I think that’s what it was, and I think people saw through that.

Colum says he’s “intending to run a very positive campaign based around ideas and policies and vision of the future”.

People want to hear us, not fighting with each other, but fighting for them and fighting for the issues that matter to them.

Colum’s decision to carry to coffin of his friend Seamus Coyle at a funeral which included a colour party dressed in paramilitary uniform could be seen as a lapse of judgement?

I understand people’s misgivings about it. I was showing respect to a family who had lost a loved one. I was carrying the coffin of somebody who I had a close relationship with. Seamus Coyle was somebody who was on his own personal peace process journey. He didn’t end up as Deputy First Minister, but he was on a journey nonetheless and committed to the peace process as much as a lot of other people are. We didn’t agree on politics but I think you can have personal friendships outside of that.

I think we’re all expected if we live in our communities to know people with different political backgrounds. My commitment to peace and reconciliation and to standing up to dissident republicans for example in my own city has been second to none. I’ve been at the forefront of that and I’ll continue to be. I don’t think I’ve any questions to answer around my commitment to peace.

The soft-spoken Derry MLA will need to turn up the passion dial in his pitch to party members if he is to convince them that now is the time to risk switching away from Big Al. He’ll need to question whether Alasdair has delivered on his leadership promise to build up the SDLP’s grass roots.

In the last leadership election, Conall McDevitt had balloons, Patsy McGlone and Alex Attwood sent text messages, and Patsy also phoned through record messages to delegates on the eve of the election. No gimmicks for Alasdair: just straight talking about votes.

The decisions you make this weekend will be whether the party survives … or dies in the political margins … We need more votes in ballot boxes so we can pursue our valuable ideas. [His voice starts to rise.] What we’re short of my friends are votes. Nobody’s going to listen to us if we don’t have votes. [Alasdair McDonnell, SDLP leadership hustings, 4 November 2011]

At this stage, the incumbent must surely be seen to have the advantage. Shifting Alasdair is surely like rolling a large rock up a steep hill.

In summary, Colum stands for a positive progressive nationalism, wouldn’t rush into Opposition, is pro-Corporation Tax if coupled with investment in skills and infrastructure, and still sees the need to make Northern Ireland work as part of his longer term ambition of convincing people about the merits of a united Ireland.

Over the next seven weeks in the run up to the SDLP conference, as policy distinctions become more apparent Slugger will no doubt publish more coverage and analysis of Alasdair’s and Colum’s campaigns.

Fearghal Mckinney has accepted nominations to challenge Dolores Kelly for the deputy leader position.

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.