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 …

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