Colum Eastwood launched his campaign to become SDLP leader at The Hive in the centre of Belfast last night. An audience of over 200 people gathered from across Northern Ireland to hear Colum make his first official pitch to oust Alasdair McDonnell as the leader of the party.
In attendance were some of the party’s well known faces such as Alex Attwood, Dolores Kelly and Brid Rodgers and Claire Hanna. Others like John Dallat and Mark Durkan couldn’t be at the launch but expressed support for Eastwood’s campaign.
The Foyle MLA began his speech telling the audience why he joined the party;
I joined the SDLP in 1998 to campaign for a YES vote in the Good Friday Agreement referendum. When you join this party and go out walking the streets in support of this party and its ideals you quickly realise that you are standing on the shoulders of giants.
He argued that it was easier for him to be in the party because of the men and women that came before stood up to violence and ensured that we enjoy a peaceful Northern Ireland today. Although whilst his speech referenced the past, there was an acknowledgement of the challenges currently facing the party;
While we are proud of our past we have to be hungry for progress for our future. As Seamus Mallon said recently, we have to be more than ‘good commemorators’. We have to set out a vision and a path for a more prosperous and fairer future.
Because what good is equality in the workplace if we still have thousands of young people leaving for Australia to find work?
What good is peace when we still live apart?
What good is power-sharing if we have ineffective government?
And what is the point of an Irish dimension that has stalled and stagnated with no credible pathway to unity?
These are the challenges that will be the work of my generation.
What will his leadership focus on?
Under my leadership our project will be to build a fair, prosperous and reconciled Northern Ireland; and an inclusive, progressive and united New Ireland. These are the twin pillars of my Progressive Nationalism.
However tempting it may sometimes be, we will not indulge the idea that the north is a ‘failed political entity’.
It doesn’t threaten our Irishness or our Nationalism to say that we want Northern Ireland to work. We want to maximise the potential of this place now and we will not sacrifice prosperity and fairness today while we set about the task of persuading for a new Ireland tomorrow.
The SDLP is determined to make the North’s economy work. With credible and practical policies for achieving prosperity for all.
The speech indicated a tack slightly further to the left and an attempt to develop a broader view of Nationalism;
Unfortunately, the height of this Executive’s economic creativity seems to be focussed on one tax lever – Corporation Tax. And while I think it is eminently sensible to harmonise tax policy across Ireland, I am convinced that it would be a pointless and expensive exercise if we don’t invest in the fundamentals of the economy too.
How can we expect to turn our stagnated economy around if we don’t invest in infrastructure right across our region?
Our capital investment of about £1 billion per year compares poorly to the South’s plan to spend 27 billion Euro over the next 6 years
How do we expect to attract new high paying graduate jobs if we’re cutting the number of graduates we’re producing?
We will support enterprise to thrive and create wealth and employment.
Equally we will invest the most in those people who need the most investment. Far too many of our people are left behind in the good times and left unprotected in the bad times.
One of the most disappointing failures of recent times has been the slow pace of change when it comes to fostering a deeper and broader understanding between Unionism and Nationalism.
Peace without reconciliation can only take us so far.
This generation of SDLP leaders will set about building practical policies and initiatives to begin to bring our people closer together. Let’s take the rhetoric of peace building and turn it into practical solutions for breaking down the barriers in our daily lives.
On opposition and the party developing in other parts of Ireland;
Let me be clear, there should be a place called opposition. One that is properly resourced and supported. But let me also be clear, the SDLP under my leadership will always seek a mandate to govern….
The nationalism that I espouse is one that moves from being a community to being an all-embracing idea that offers a positive vision for the Ireland of this century free from the shackles of the divisions of the past.
Irish Nationalism should become a demographic of belief rather than a demographic of birth.
We will be persuaders for a new united Ireland.
On that basis, it is right that the SDLP does not contest elections in the South. To grow a consensus we need to be partners with southern parties, not in competition with them. The best interests of the nation should come before the ambitions of any political party.
The closing paragraphs hit subtlety at McDonnell and the frustration of party members as they continue to decline;
I don’t know about you but I’m fed up losing! It’s time we started winning again. And we can. If we start now, if we modernise, if we re-commit to our new project we can win again. My plan is for the renewal of our party and our politics – a new path to a new future.
It will take determination and tenacity.
It will need us to unite and to stay united.
We will have to embrace modern techniques and new ideas.
It will take time. I have time.
Join with me in making this party win again.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs