As one election ends another begins. Yesterday we were invited to follow the SDLP European Candidate and Party Leader, Colum Eastwood around on the North Belfast leg of his trip. We moved around in the new famous battle bus that has garnered comments from Diane Dodds and Jim Allister. This included a visit to a day centre in Newington then to the Girdwood site for a visit with local MLA, Nichola Mallon and then up to the Crumlin Star for a visit with sitting Councillor’s Paul McCusker and Brian Heading.
On the bus I had a chance to sit with the SDLP Leader and I asked him about the bus and why it has garnered some commentary about the messages displayed on it. Eastwood argues that the bus is very useful in a short campaign, it’s a good way to get out a very important message about the European Union and the issues at stake in this election.
It’s got a lot of attention because people like Jim Allister and the DUP don’t like the fact that that Europe is good for us. I think that’s what the public think and the public want to send a very clear message against Brexit.
The SDLP lost the European seat in 2004 following the departure of John Hume and have failed at every subsequent election to get it back, so I asked why in 2019 are they in a position to win it back?
This is actually the first European Election in a long time that is actually about Europe. John Hume always used to tell us to fight the European campaign on Europe but in reality it became about local issues. This is about Europe, this is about sending two remainers , instead of two leavers to the European Parliament and the mathematics can only add up one way. We are in poll position and we need to take the third seat.
I asked him but surely the SDLP are not the only contenders now with the surge in support for the Alliance Party and their party leader, Naomi Long. Eastwood responded by saying that the SDLP didn’t suffer the wipe out that was predicted before polling day and indeed elected many new candidates last week. After everything, the SDLP was still polling ahead of the Alliance Party, he pointed out that when you take into account many of the former members of the party who were running as independents, they will likely return to the fold for this election. Eastwood contends no matter which way you look at it, the SDLP are still ahead and in the best position to take that seat.
Eastwood points out that the SDLP were the only party to register to campaign against Brexit. The party that also were first to champion special status and the most pro European party throughout its entire history. If elected he will sit within the Party of European Socialists and will work across the chamber with all parties.
I wondered about those who might be undecided in this election but who want two pro-Remain MEPs send back to Brussels what would his message be to them.
My message is clear. I think that Naomi is a fantastic candidate, we agree on many things. The bottom line on this whole thing is both of us are behind. We are fourth, Alliance were sixth in the last election. We need to come third, we are fewer than two thousand votes behind the Ulster Unionists, we are the only ones who can do it. So I am going to ask people to lend us your vote in this election. We know that even if we get every SDLP voter out it will still be a stretch. So we need SDLP voters, voters who are unaligned, voters who vote for other people.
I finished up by asking him about this leadership, can you lead a party from Brussels?
Eastwood simply responded by saying that we should go where we need to go at this moment in time. With no assembly, it is all the more important that Northern Ireland sends an anti Brexit message. Moreover, he noted that some people are thinking that there is some sort of conspiracy to stop Brexit, for the SDLP they’re up front and honest about stopping it.
Some thoughts about the overall campaign
For me this was unusual, in a European campaign you are not going to door to door, rather making stops in a few places and meeting as many people as you can. Eastwood is generally good with people and we were in all working class areas too, which is where the SDLP have been lacking in support in recent years.
The bus works, I was dubious about some of the messages when I first looked at it, but in general people really liked it. At stops people were asking to get their pictures taken beside it and others were beeping their horns in support of it. Inside the bus, the campaign team working with Eastwood seem in good spirits and enjoying going around Northern Ireland.
This is a big risk for Eastwood, particularly with Naomi Long in the race. But for me, it’s risk worth taking. The SDLP have played it safe in a few elections with very little returns to show for it. Putting this election up in lights and actually going for it, is something that the party will need to do more of in the future. If the party cannot make stand on Europe, then what is the point of the entire operation in the future?
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs