Colum Eastwood elected as new leader of the SDLP

The 32-year-old Assembly member defeated Dr Alasdair McDonnell for top post

New leader Colum Eastwood has pledged to make the SDLP more relevant after he was last night elected the party's sixth leader.

At 32, Mr Eastwood is the youngest MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the youngest leader of the SDLP.

Mr Eastwood, who is married and has a daughter, defeated 66-year-old South Belfast MP and Assembly member Dr Alasdair McDonnell, who served as leader for the past four years.

He won by 172 votes (56 per cent) to 133 (44 per cent). Previous leaders of the SDLP, which was founded in August 1970, were Dr McDonnell, Margaret Ritchie, Mark Durkan, John Hume and Gerry Fitt. Like Mr Hume and Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood is a Derry native.


The conference marked a double change in leadership as South Belfast MLA Fearghal McKinney was elected deputy leader, ousting Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly.

‘Democratic nationalism’

“The relevance of our voice remains; it simply needs to become more audible,” said Mr Eastwood in his first speech as leader. “The story and purpose of democratic nationalism on this island, the tradition from which we as a party were wrought and moulded is too broad, too deep, too important for us to allow it to be carried and spoken by others.

“We remain true to the principles that gave birth to this party: the principle of non-violence tops that list.” He said violence was “morally reprehensible” and dismissed the dissident argument that they were fighting the British.

“They need to know, they need to be made understand that their fight is with us. It is with the Irish people and there only ever will be one winner in that battle.”

Mr Eastwood described the SDLP as the “most successful party in the history of these islands”.

He portrayed the party as the architects of powersharing and bringing a North-South and east-west dimension to the peace and political process.

Mr Eastwood praised Dr McDonnell who “had stretched every fibre of his being for this party” and given “the work of two lifetimes for the good of this party and for the good of the community he serves”.


Mr Eastwood has been an Assembly member for Foyle since 2011. He was the mayor of Derry in 2010-2011, the youngest person to hold this office.

Mr Eastwood came in for controversy when in 2012 he helped carry the coffin at the funeral in Derry of Seamus “Chang” Coyle, a former INLA member, a funeral that was also attended by masked men. Explaining his attendance, he said: “Seamus Coyle was a friend of mine from school. It was difficult for me politically to carry that coffin but it was important on a personal level.”

In the leadership contest he had support of party grandees such as Seamus Mallon, Brid Rodgers and Sean Farren.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times