If the DUP does not return to powersharing there must be a “new model of shared stewardship between the British and Irish governments,” the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said.
In his address to the SDLP conference in Derry on Saturday, Mr Eastwood attacked the DUP, saying it needed to “get back to work or get out of the way” and the choice now “isn’t really about a protocol or a framework, it’s about whether the DUP are prepared to share power with their neighbours.”
The SDLP leader and Foyle MP said the largest unionist party had “run out of excuses, they have run out of road and the public ran out of patience with them a long, long time ago” and rather than the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s “seven tests” on the Northern Ireland Protocol, there was only one test left.
“The test is whether we all roll up our sleeves, get back to work and try to help people,” he said.
Mr Eastwood said that, despite the “overwhelming” majority in favour of the framework in the UK parliament, the DUP was “still digging their heels in” and the “much deeper reality” was that “25 years on, the truth is that the DUP still haven’t come to terms with” the Belfast Agreement.
Northern Ireland has been without a fully-functioning Assembly or Executive for more than a year, since the DUP withdrew from the powersharing institutions as part of its protest against the protocol.
The DUP has refused to re-enter Stormont until its concerns are addressed to its satisfaction and is currently considering its official response to the new trading rules agreed by the UK and EU in the Windsor Framework.
A number of high-profile DUP politicians have already spoken out against the framework, including Mr Donaldson, who has described it as “insufficient” and a “sticking plaster.”
In his speech, Mr Eastwood warned that if the DUP’s “long-term position is set against restoring our democratic institutions, then they must take that decision in the knowledge that the democratic traditions of this island will respond.
“The road the wreckers have set us on can lead to one of two new destinations,” he said. “Lasting reform of the Assembly to ensure that our people can work together in their common interests, or a new shared British Irish stewardship of the North.
“If we are unable to secure lasting reform of the institutions then the only alternative is a new settlement that retains power with the Irish and British traditions that share this island.
“If political parties will not work together, then there must be a new model of shared stewardship between the British and Irish governments,” he said.
During his speech Mr Eastwood addressed the “bruising electoral contest” which saw the party lose four seats and its place at the Executive table in the Assembly elections last May and acknowledged recent “polls and surveys [which] have not made comfortable reading.”
He said his party had been “written off” many times before and “the adversity we face now is nothing compared to the adversity this party shouldered in the past.”
“The SDLP is here to stay,” he said, emphasising that it was a party with a “new mission” and which was embarking “on a long-term political strategy of reimagining our country.”
Mr Eastwood also referenced the work of the New Ireland Commission, the body set up by the party in 2020 to discuss the constitutional future of the island.
He said it had “shifted gear” and was embarking on a programme of public engagement “that aims to reach every tradition and every community on our island”, including holding discussions with unionists.
“It is the core mission of this movement to reach out to our unionist neighbours,” he said. “Our task is to convince them of our conviction that a new future must include them.”