Colum Eastwood: ‘People want a better choice than bad or no government’

SDLP leader looks to election season in the North as his party meets up in Bellaghy

In the North, it is election season. With less than 80 days to go until the May 5th polling day, the SDLP bids to absorb the magic of Seamus Heaney when they gather in his own home village in Bellaghy on Sunday.

The gathering in the Seamus Heaney HomePlace – the party’s spring conference and the first since the Covid-19 pandemic erupted two years ago – has a slimmed-down schedule.

There will be no debating of motions. Instead, it is a chance to meet up, to renew ties. "It's just been soooo long," said one party member, set to hear from party leader Colum Eastwood and others.

In reality, it is the springboard from which the SDLP’s election campaign – already dubbed “People First” and concentrating on bread-and-butter issues – must launch.

Besides discussions on health, education and the cost of living, delegates will hear from West Belfast's Paul Doherty, a candidate in May and one well-known there for his work with food banks .

Notable by their absence is any reference to Brexit, the Northern Ireland protocol or the constitutional question. Instead it is about people's struggles with "soaring" bills.

“That’s what our politics should be about,” says Colum Eastwood, a judgment backed up by Institute of Irish Studies University of Liverpool and the Irish News polling this week.

Poll results

However, if those same poll results are accurate, the SDLP’s message is so far struggling to connect. Just 9.9 per cent of those polled said they would give the SDLP a first-preference, putting it in fifth place.

“We take everything seriously, but we do our own research as well. I don’t think we’re on 10 per cent. Even on 10 per cent we can pick up seats in the right places, but we’re not on 10 per cent,” says Eastwood.

In the Westminster 2019 election, the SDLP had 15 per cent: “I am very comfortable and confident that we’re going to do well,” he said. “I have been written off before, I’m well used to it.”

“People said I had no chance of getting elected in Foyle, so let’s just wait and see,” he said, citing his 2019 landslide Westminster in Foyle, when he finished 17,000 votes ahead of sitting Sinn Féin MP Elisha McCallion.

Foyle is among the party's Assembly targets this time. Currently, it is represented in Stormont by two SDLP, two Sinn Féin and one DUP MLAs. Eastwood wants a third seat, though he accepts it will be "a big battle".

“We’re definitely in the hunt for that. I won’t see it as a failure if we don’t get it, but we’ve got three very good candidates. We’re in a very good place with transfers,” he said.

Other potential gains include Strangford, where the party has high hopes for first-time candidate Conor Houston (a former Irish Times Trust member), as well as in Fermanagh South Tyrone and west Belfast.

Stormont crisis

"There are some other places like South Antrim which could be dark horses. We're in the hunt all over the place," says Eastwood. Inside the party, there is lots of talk about the new, younger candidates coming forward.

Hard experience, though, indicates that traditional allegiances usually win out. Despite the collapsed Assembly, the “cash for ash” scandal and other issues, the DUP and Sinn Féin were still neck-and-neck in 2017.

This time, matters are just as polarised, if not more so. Stormont is in crisis again following the resignation of Paul Givan as first minister, and there are innumerable other points of friction.

Nevertheless, Eastwood says: “I just don’t believe that people will be fooled again by this nonsense about who’s going to be first minister and deputy first minister.

“I just think people post-pandemic and everything else want a better choice than bad government or no government and that’s what they’ve been getting over the last 15 years,” he went on.

Indeed, the DUP’s conduct could help the SDLP, since the two are fighting over the last seats in many constituencies, he argues. However, Eastwood must also worry about the Alliance Party, which could yet be the third-largest party.

“We’re not really prepared to just accept how an election’s going to go. The public have all the power in this and if they decide they want something different then the SDLP is a good bet on that,” says the SDLP leader.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

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