Ahead of this weekend’s SDLP conference, Colum Eastwood explains to political correspondent John Manley why he is not troubled by opinion polls and why he will continue to attack political opponents.
COLUM Eastwood insists he is not impressed with the results of this week’s Institute of Irish Studies-University of Liverpool/The Irish News opinion poll.
It put the SDLP on a 9.9% share of the first preference vote, relegating it to fifth place in Stormont’s pecking order.
“Even on those numbers I think we would win seats, but we are not on those numbers,” the SDLP leader said.
“We also did our own research and I’m not panicking at all.”
For him, the campaign for the May 5 elections has not yet started.
“People still need to focus on the issues and I think when they do they will see that the SDLP has the best slate of candidates since our founding,” he said.
“When they see that it’s an assembly election and it’s really about electing a government, I think they’re going to realize that we’ve had 15 years of the same old story. For too long people have been faced with the choice of bad government or no government. I sincerely believe that people want something different.
Seven years after taking over from Alasdair McDonnell as leader of the SDLP, MP Foyle believes the party has “changed in terms of personnel and organisation”.
“We put people first when other parties put themselves first,” he said.
He also notes the drop in support for Sinn Féin in this week’s poll and believes the SDLP will win seats in constituencies where the former may miss out, citing West Belfast, Fermanagh-South Tyrone, Foyle and South Antrim as possibilities. He is also reasonably confident that Strangford will return his first-ever Nationalist MP.
Mr Eastwood dismisses arguments over who will emerge as Prime Minister, pointing out that ‘both of them have been running the place with the exact same partners for about 15 years and our lives haven’t improved’.
“While some political parties want us to focus on who the prime minister is or on protocol, I think the public would like us to focus on what a government actually does,” he says.
The SDLP leader is scathing about Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s failure to state outright that he will serve under a Nationalist Prime Minister, describing it as “the most undemocratic thing I have ever heard”.
“It suits both the DUP and Sinn Féin to have a row over who will be the Prime Minister because what they do all the time here is bad government and then six months before the election everyone has afraid and worried about who is going to be prime minister and pretending that the union is in jeopardy – all that.
“Then we end up having an election that’s quite overtly bigoted and no one is watching the fact that our health service is a mess, our young people are emigrating and the cost of living is skyrocketing.”
He insists that the day after the election, whether it’s Jeffrey Donaldson or Michelle O’Neill as prime minister, “they’re both prime ministers.”
“It’s exactly the same position,” he said.
“It’s the cancer that’s in our politics because they know they can press that old argument.”
In recent weeks the SDLP has been accused of being too critical of Sinn Féin, but Mr Eastwood is unapologetic, calling the criticism ‘hilarious’.
“They obviously never looked at the leader’s questions in the Dáil where Mary Lou McDonald very vigorously and effectively attacks the government – that’s politics,” he says.
“They are very sensitive to criticism from a political party that likes to hand them out – Nichola Mallon is absolutely beaten by Sinn Féin in the assembly but you don’t hear us complaining.”
MP for Foyle is targeting all Stormont parties except Ulster Unionists. He says the current crisis around the institutions is “the whole work of the DUP”, but insists that the resignation of Paul Givan “has no impact on the negotiations” between the UK and the EU.
“The DUP has been pointing a gun at his head for months, saying ‘if you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to shoot’, and now they’ve shot and what have they got? Nothing,” says- he.
“The DUP is going to be disappointed with the outcome of the negotiations when it happens because there’s no way to give them what they want. And after all these years I’m amazed that they still think that Boris Johnson is going to do them a big favour.”
In what is arguably a backhanded acknowledgment that Alliance and the SDLP are seeking the same votes, Mr Eastwood attacks Naomi Long’s party on the grounds that it ‘doesn’t even talk’ about the constitutional issue – an approach he find it “odd”. ”.
“I like Alliance; I work with them; they are progressive; I want more progressive voices around this executive table, but I don’t think we can talk about the future without acknowledging that there’s a big conversation going on about the future of the island – I think the ‘Alliance avoids this question,’ he says.
“It’s for them. People have a choice to make when they go to the polls to find out if enough is enough in this time of immense change.”
The SDLP leader remains cautious about demanding a unity referendum in the short term, saying ‘we should do the work to make sure we can win a border ballot’.
He reiterates his call on the government in Dublin to set up a Citizens’ Assembly to examine the potential for unity and says his party’s New Ireland Commission will be ‘strengthened’ as Covid restrictions are expected to be relaxed. MP Foyle describes Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s shared island unit as a ‘good thing’ but ‘not enough’.
“I think Dublin needs to be involved in the conversation, but I think the most important thing is that the public all over the island needs to be involved,” he says.
“The political parties will do their job. Sinn Féin will do its job, as will Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Irish Labor – at some point I hope we will have a common vision for the future.
He argues that for historical reasons, the SDLP “can appeal to a wider base than Sinn Féin”.
“The big problem is how to convince people who are now voting for the Alliance and the Greens that they can be comfortable in this new Ireland,” he says.
“My view is that we are selling a positive future, a future that is about lifting people out of poverty, giving them top-notch public services and not threatening anyone’s identity. This is the DNA of the SDLP – the social democratic approach to politics, alongside this desire to bring people together.