SDLP devotees have a new surge of hope in their hearts

Colum Eastwood gives stirring speech as he takes party’s helm

"That's the best speech we've heard in a hundred years," said a hugely enthused SDLP supporter to reporters at the press desk after new leader Colum Eastwood addressed the party's annual conference on Saturday evening.

It was an odd comment. First of all, the man could only have been in his early 60s and, second, the SDLP is just 45 years in existence.

Still, we knew what he meant. Eastwood, at 32 the youngest-ever leader of the SDLP and the youngest MLA in the Assembly, had just delivered a cracking victory speech.

After John Hume and Mark Durkan, he is the third Derry politician to lead the party, and seems imbued with that city's noted native eloquence and energy. The 300 or so delegates entered the party conference in the Armagh City Hotel on Friday evening fairly flat and dispirited; they left late on Saturday night – or, for the hardier revellers, sometime on Sunday morning – with hope in their hearts.


The old order changeth, there is a new team at the SDLP helm. Eastwood ousted South Belfast MP Dr Alasdair McDonnell in a close-run contest by 172 votes to 133 votes. Delegates also went for a new deputy leader, favouring South Belfast MLA and former UTV journalist Fearghal McKinney against the Upper Bann incumbent Dolores Kelly. The odds were against McDonnell with party venerables such as Séamus Mallon, Brid Rodgers and Séan Farren firmly in the Eastwood camp.

‘Vision thing’

McDonnell in his campaign had asked for a year to 18 months to complete his job of restructuring the SDLP. But the party said no: delegates acknowledged his organisational skills but they wanted more. They desired what

David Trimble

dismissively used to call the “vision thing” on top of administration.

It's early days, of course, but Eastwood powerfully reasserted old SDLP principles of all-embracing political commitment and non-violence. He implicitly conceded the party is in bad shape but, with a nod to Dylan Thomas, insisted it had no intention of going "quietly into the night".

He urged the party, notorious for infighting and petty squabbling, to unite and to believe “there is a future to be fought for”. He’ll need all his oratorical capability, youth and vigour for the challenges ahead.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times