The new leader of the SDLP Colum Eastwood has pledged to make the party more relevant after he was last night elected the sixth leader of the party, and the third Derry man to hold the post.
Mr Eastwood, married with a daughter, defeated 66-year-old South Belfast MP and Assembly member Dr Alasdair McDonnell who served as leader for the past four years. At 32 Mr Eastwood is the youngest MLA in the Assembly and the youngest leader of the SDLP.
He won by 172 (56 per cent) votes to 133 (44 per cent).
He is the sixth leader of the SDLP which was founded in August 1970. Its previous leaders were Dr McDonnell, Margaret Ritchie, Mark Durkan, John Hume and Gerry Fitt. He follows in the footsteps of fellow Derry natives, Mr Hume and Mr Durkan.
The conference marked a double change in leadership as South Belfast MLA Fearghal McKinney was elected as deputy leader, ousting the incumbent and Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly.
“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,” he added.
“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 from “now until kingdom come” violence must never be part of the tradition of this island.
He spoke of the “vanity and insanity” of dissident violence. He 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 power-sharing who had brought a North-South and east-west dimension to the peace and political process. He said the party had help reconcile the oldest of enemies and had achieved this through “argument and big ideas”.
“These and these alone are our weapons, yet they proved weapons enough,” he added.
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. A former SDLP representative on the committee of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister he currently sits on the Assembly committees on standards and privileges, and the environment.
Mr Eastwood was the mayor of Derry in 2010-2011 and was the city’s youngest mayor. He decided to challenge Dr McDonnell for the leadership in late September.
He 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 at the funeral 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 to me on a personal level.”
In the leadership contest he enjoyed the support of party grandees such as former deputy leader Seamus Mallon, former SDLP Ministers Brid Rodgers and Sean Farren. Earlier this week Pat Hume, wife of former SDLP leader John Hume, also declared her support for Mr Eastwood.
Mr Eastwood brought his campaign throughout the North campaigning under the slogan, “Make the change for our future”. He argued that the SDLP needed “a new generation to take forward not only the party, but the future direction of the country”.
He said he wanted to pursue “a new brand of progressive nationalism” that was based on “radical and realistic proposals and policies for a better future”.
Mr Eastwood said he believed “deeply in a united Ireland”. He said as leader the SDLP would “set out exactly what a new united Ireland will look like, and set about convincing all the people of Ireland of the value of our convictions”.
Dr McDonnell in congratulating Mr Eastwood said he was proud to have been leader for the past four years. “I have given my all and then a bit more,” he said.
“I am gone – I won’t be going very far away – and it is over to others to keep going,” added Dr McDonnell.
Earlier today 66-year-old Dr McDonnell delivered his last conference keynote address as leader. He defended his record and said that when he was elected in 2011 the “political obituaries” were being written for the SDLP.
He said then he would do three things: recruit new candidates; re-organise the party and; make the party battle-ready for elections not just this year or next but for the next twenty years. “I never promised you overnight success but I believe we are moving in the right direction,” he said.
“Well we have the candidates, we have the issues and policies nailed down, we have the party structures better organised and we are ready to do electoral battle in the years ahead,” added Dr McDonnell.