Near the tunnel that connects Portcullis House with the Palace of Westminster, Colum Eastwood sat with his tie coiled on the table and purple rings under his eyes. When I met him, on 22 February, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) wanted to be near the House of Commons for a debate on delaying elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.
Northern Ireland has been without a government since February last year, when the DUP left the executive in protest against the Northern Ireland protocol – the agreement governing post-Brexit trade and immigration issues between Britain and the EU.
It looked unlikely that a fresh election would break the impasse, hence the Commons vote. The stalemate, Eastwood lamented, is crippling public services. “Our [Northern Ireland’s] health service has collapsed. It’s not in trouble; it has collapsed. And that needs local, elected people to take decisions… Trying to wash your hands in a Pontius Pilate kind of way of all these problems is just irresponsible, and I think in the long run it will undermine their [the DUP] own case for the Union.”
Eastwood, 39, was first elected to Stormont in 2011 and became leader of his party four years later. The SDLP is moderate and nationalist, striving for, in Eastwood’s words, a united Ireland based “on the principles of equality and reconciliation”. Unlike the more radical Sinn Féin, the SDLP takes its seats in the House of Commons, and Eastwood arrived in 2019 as the MP for Foyle. He swore the necessary oath to the Queen, albeit with the addendum that his “true allegiance is to the people of Derry and the people of Ireland”. He used his maiden speech to lampoon Boris Johnson’s approach to Brexit for jeopardising the Good Friday Agreement.
Eastwood thinks that most politicians at Westminster treat Northern Ireland with indifference. “If they look at us at all, they see us as an irritant.” That impression extends to the British people, and he pointed to the absence of Northern Ireland during the 2016 referendum campaign. “If you said to most MPs or most British people that Northern Ireland was leaving tomorrow, they wouldn’t be too bothered,” he said. “It’s a very different conversation when it comes to Scotland.”
Aren’t Conservative backbenchers and the DUP motivated by protecting the Good Friday Agreement? “It’s nonsense,” Eastwood replied. “I remember 25 years ago, when the agreement was being signed, the DUP were outside, holding placards and shouting slogans while other people were doing the negotiating… I find it very disingenuous and very, very difficult to be lectured [to] by members of the DUP, or the ERG [the European Research Group of eurosceptic Tory MPs], about the importance of the Good Friday Agreement when Brexit actually is the thing that has caused the most damage to the [agreement].”
Around us, politicos hurried speculating over reports that a UK-EU deal over the protocol was imminent. Eastwood had been involved in talks with Downing Street. The deal – the Windsor framework, as it became known – will reduce checks on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, and give Stormont a greater say over EU laws. Eastwood has since welcomed the agreement. The DUP and hard-line Conservative Brexiteers are yet to confirm whether they will support it. The UK government hopes fresh Northern Irish elections are unnecessary because the deal will tempt the DUP back into the executive.
Uncertainties over the restoration of power-sharing has elicited calls for the Good Friday Agreement – which governs the Stormont system – to be revised. There is precedent: the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006 changed the way the first minister is elected. The former prime minister, John Major, who laid the foundations for the agreement, has said the rules should be updated to prevent one party from collapsing the executive. Simon Hoare, chair of the Northern Ireland Committee, has argued that another unionist party should be allowed to take the place of the DUP. And Theresa May reportedly thought amending the Good Friday Agreement could be a way to avoid the Irish backstop, which would’ve kept the UK in the customs union, in her Brexit negotiations with the EU.
However, while Eastwood agrees that the agreement needs reform, he worries it will unleash a series of incompatible demands. “The minute you open this up, you’re opening everything up. If not done properly, that could lead us into a difficult place.” For instance, he thinks unionists may push to change the principle of consent, which states that reunification requires the support of a simple majority. “That can’t be touched,” Eastwood said.
One criticism of the Good Friday Agreement has been that the designation of Stormont members as “unionist”, “nationalist” or “other” fails to account for those that don’t recognise the issue as the key political dividing line. “It’s kind of ugly. I don’t think it was ever imagined that it would last forever,” Eastwood said about the binary designation system. “We have to figure out how we get the maximum amount of cross-community cooperation, whilst at the same time trying to move away from some of these labels. And that’s not simple.” But first the executive must be restored, and then there can be “a proper, thoughtful, considered conversation about what reform might look like”.
The Good Friday Agreement, Eastwood believes, allowed him and others to argue to other nationalists that violence was not only immoral but politically bankrupt. He first campaigned for the agreement back in 1998 as a 15-year-old, when a family friend invited him to knock on some doors. Eastwood still sees the agreement as “a seminal moment in Irish history, a moment where the centuries-long war – and I use the word ‘war’ in different forms – between the people of Ireland and Britain actually ended”.
“It’s also very frustrating, 25 years later, to see how we haven’t lived up to the potential of the Good Friday Agreement,” he reflected. “I think some political parties in Northern Ireland continue the old battles, just in a different way. And I think a lot of people are very frustrated with that.”
How has this episode impacted the prospect of reunification? “We’re on the path now,” he replied. “Brexit has changed everything – many people who would never have thought about it, or were happy to wait, are thinking about it much more strongly,” before adding that “there’s no putting that back in the box”.
The SDLP’s plan is to “ratchet up that conversation in a way that will be very respectful but will eventually become about persuading people to vote for a united Ireland”. He thinks other political parties and the Irish government will do the same. “That may be in a decade and may be earlier, but we’re on the road now. And I think that that’s going to be unstoppable.”
Eastwood’s confidence in the inevitability of reunification is tempered with short-term realism: he knows there’s no majority for a united Ireland yet. “The last thing Irish nationalism needs now is a border poll, because we’d lose it,” he said. Likewise, Brexit may catalyse nationalist sentiment, but it also contains stark warnings for the nationalist project: “If Brexit tells us anything [it’s that] big constitutional ruptures need to be planned properly… Any kind of confusion, or any doubt, will be exploited and people just won’t vote for it.”