SDLP insists it has role to play in ‘making Northern Ireland’

Party’s annual conference hears it will not support Tories if there is a hung parliament

The SDLP still has a relevance and a vision and a contribution to make to "making Northern Ireland", Assembly member Alex Attwood told the party's annual conference in Belfast today.

Mr Attwood said that "questions have been raised about our role" but a key priority and principle for the SDLP was to ensure that politics would succeed in Northern Ireland.

"We believe in making Northern Ireland work. Some prefer Northern Ireland to stumble on - instability, wearing down unionism, maybe break their will. Not us," he said.

“Be it part of the union with Britain now or part of Irish unity later, we are committed to making Northern Ireland work. If people here are to have the government and delivery from government so badly needed, we must do so.”

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Mr Attwood said that unlike Sinn Féin the SDLP it took its seats at Westminster and with the Scottish National Party would use its strength and its influence to combat the austerity agenda if Labour was elected. "We will not support the Tories if there is a hung parliament. We take the Labour whip and we will support a Labour government, on the right terms," he added.

“We will see if the collective strength of the SDLP, SNP and others can be directed to confront austerity and support working families and workless people,” said Mr Attwood.

The possibility of going into “constructive opposition” was one of the key issues at the conference. Mr Attwood examined two arguments for and against.

“On the one hand, the argument goes, why be part of something that is so removed from what Irish democracy struggled for, crafted and then secured?” he said.

“On the other hand, the argument goes, we need to remain in something so that our democracy is not a two party system, much like the old elitist, preferential, ascendency politics - the one party state, we democratically struggled and prevailed against.”

Former leader Mark Durkan was direct in warning against going into opposition. He queried how the party could canvass at the doorsteps, saying vote for the SDLP "so that we can go into opposition".

Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood told the conference that all citizens of Ireland, North and South, must be included in commemorative events surrounding the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

“People of the North have been central to many of the historical events in Irish history and we look forward to playing our part in commemorating events of 1916 and setting out a new vision for the future of this island,” he said.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times