Eastwood says election chance to end ‘stranglehold’ by Sinn Féin and DUP

Third Tyrone SDLP councillor quits over internal party differences

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood at the party’s manifesto launch in The O’Neill Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre in Dungannon. Photograph: Arthur Allison

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood at the party’s manifesto launch in The O’Neill Ranfurly House Arts and Visitor Centre in Dungannon. Photograph: Arthur Allison

 

The Northern Ireland Assembly election on May 5th is an opportunity to end the “stranglehold” Sinn Féin and the DUP has on the Northern Ireland Executive, according to SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

Speaking at the party’s manifesto launch in Dungannon on Monday Mr Eastwood said he is confident the party is making pledges that will appeal to voters.

The SDLP has committed to introducing a “Strong Start Fund” – a tax-free savings account, providing £250 to every newborn, a further £250 aged 10, with a promise of exploring with other parties the option of a third payment at 16.

Establishing Northern Ireland’s first digital technology and coding academy was also among key commitments, according to Mr Eastwood, as was promoting integrated education, reducing student fees, reversing cuts to student places and providing greater investment in regional infrastructure projects, such as roads and railways.

The 32-year-old from Derry took over the top job in the SDLP in November. The party held just 14 of the 108 seats in the last Assembly.

The SDLP is standing a total of 24 candidates this time around and faces significant challenges in constituencies such as South Belfast, West Belfast, Upper Bann and Foyle, where Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness is running.

“We have had nine years of neglect and failure,” Mr Eastwood said. “The DUP and Sinn Féin have had a stranglehold on the Executive and haven’t delivered very much. “We have 22,000 people leaving our shores to emigrate every year, 37 per cent of our young people who want to go to university have to leave to find a place, so we are saying we are going to invest in young people from the day of their birth, in early years education, reversing the cuts to university places and the economy to keep people here so emigration ceases to be the scourge it has been on our society for decades.”

Mr Eastwood reaffirmed the SDLP would only enter government in the North after May 5th if there was a “credible and progressive” programme for government that meets the needs of the people.

He also spoke of his party being about “progressive nationalism” and for “Ireland to be reunited, Northern Ireland has to work”.

He committed to lobbying the next Republic of Ireland government on Seanad reform, to ensure Northern representation becomes an official and permanent part of the Oireachtas and to press for voting rights in presidential elections to Northern citizens.

The SDLP leader said he wants “key North-South projects which have long been neglected” to be prioritised, including work starting on the A5 (which travels through counties Derry and Tyrone), building the Narrow Water Bridge (linking counties Louth with Down) and kick-starting the North West Gateway Initiative.

It emerged on Monday that a third Tyrone councillor had quit the SDLP, in the space of a week, over internal party differences.

Omagh representative Joanne Kelly announced she would be supporting Josephine Deehan and Patsy Kelly, who are contesting the Assembly election as independent social democrats.

The resignations follow a dispute over the decision to stand Daniel McCrossan as the only West Tyrone candidate in the Assembly election. “Every party has their own internal issues, but the SDLP is focused on the future,” Mr Eastwood said. “We have a democratic process internally where every member has the right to put themselves forward for selection, I had to do that . . . and of course we only had one candidate in West Tyrone, Daniel McCrossan, and other people now have a problem with that, but they didn’t put their names forward at the time.

“We are sorry they have left, but the SDLP is focused on building a new future and we are very confident we can take the West Tyrone seat.”