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Colum Eastwood: “The story of the election is the revival of the SDLP”

The SDLP leader on his party’s bid to return to Westminster — and its priorities in a hung parliament. 

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No party had quite as chastening a night on 8 June 2017 as Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The Commons representation it had enjoyed since its foundation in 1970 evaporated at a stroke, with all three of its MPs losing their seats. That two fell to Sinn Féin — including Foyle, the once impregnable citadel of its former leaders John Hume and Mark Durkan — spoke to a seemingly intractable decline. With Northern Ireland’s politics lurching to the extremes, the constitutional nationalists appeared destined to be squeezed out of the mainstream: out-greened by Sinn Féin, and supplanted as the catch-all party of conciliation by Alliance. 

Their existential woes looked to be compounded earlier this year when, far from breathing new life into the party, the anticlimactic announcement of a partnership with the Republic’s Fianna Fáil ended in a spate of grassroots resignations and the departure of Claire Hanna, the SDLP’s strongest media performer, from its Stormont Assembly group. In May, Colum Eastwood, its leader, tried and failed to win election as an MEP — or, as he put it, to Hume’s old seat in the European parliament. That he was beaten convincingly by Alliance’s Naomi Long summed up the SDLP’s bind: despite having had the right answers in the past, it did seem unable to stake as convincing a claim to the future. 

Yet that looks set to change on 12 December. A year that looked like it would be remembered as another staging post on the SDLP’s journey to irrelevance might yet go down as the beginning of a revival — or so Eastwood thinks. Hanna is the favourite to reclaim South Belfast, where Sinn Féin and the Greens have stood aside in a bid to maximise the Remain vote and oust the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly. In Foyle, meanwhile, Eastwood is quietly confident of overturning Sinn Féin’s majority of 169: the SDLP regained its status as the biggest party in Derry in May’s local elections and consensus dictates that the republicans will struggle to replicate their unprecedented 2017 showing this week. 

Can the SDLP live up to expectations? “I think we’re doing well,” Eastwood told me over lunch in Derry late last month. “The response is very good, but we know we’re in a tight fight. We lost Foyle last time with 169 votes. A lot has happened and it’s hard to get a handle on what has actually happened and where people are.”

Derry, Eastwood says, has been hit particularly hard by the impasse at Stormont, particularly on health and unemployment. “I think people are frustrated that we have no representation in Westminster, given that Brexit will be decided in the next Westminster parliament,” he said. “That’s coupled with the fact there’s no Stormont those two issues have compounded into a real frustration with the DUP and Sinn Féin.”

“We also know in this city that we’ve been economically deprived and we didn’t get an uplift from the last DUP-Sinn Féin executive, it didn’t properly invest here. Now nobody’s going to Stormont, and there isn’t the representation in Westminster… All of that is creating a frustration here that people want to respond to.” The only local accent audible in the Commons chamber now, he jokes, belongs to Gregory Campbell, the hardline DUP MP for the neighbouring seat of East Londonderry. He believes that voters “want someone to speak for them, and speak for Derry, because it’s a place that’s been left behind”. 

Eastwood’s optimism begs the question of why the SDLP, whose crucible was the city’s nationalist civil rights struggle in the 1960s, lost here in 2017. He defends Mark Durkan, his predecessor, noting that he won more votes than in 2015. “It was just after Martin McGuinness had died,” he says. “There was a real anger at Arlene Foster. The Assembly had collapsed not that long before. People were angry and wanted to express that anger, and there was a polarisation that I don’t think we’d seen in quite a while. So, I think that was the response.”

He senses that buyer’s remorse may have set in among the nationalist electorate. “I think the longer the Assembly has been down, the more people have seen the impact of that decision. The impact of no government. The impact of no investment here. And they realise — I think they realise, anyway — that we can have strong positions on issues like the Irish language, but if we’re not going to work on dealing with poverty, the economy, the health service and schools then it’s kind of redundant — especially when the DUP have all the power.”

But how does he square his combative appeals to voters to punish Sinn Féin for abstentionism with his endorsement of its candidate in North Belfast? Eastwood’s critics say the SDLP’s withdrawal in favour of John Finucane, who could overturn Nigel Dodds’ slender majority of 2,081, has undermined his argument for taking back Foyle. 

He disagrees. “It’s a numbers game,” he shrugs. “It’s just mathematics. We want to take out as many Brexiteers from the parliament as possible, and put in as many Remainers as possible. In North Belfast we couldn’t win, so the job there is to take out a Brexiteer. And I would far rather put John Finucane sitting in the House than Nigel Dodds sitting in the House of Commons. And, you know what? People actually get it. They’re sophisticated enough to understand.”

Cross-community appeal, particularly in first-past-the-post elections, has always been the SDLP’s sine qua non. But its effective endorsement of — and by — Sinn Féin in North and South Belfast has enraged political unionism. Gary Middleton, Foyle’s DUP assembly member, has argued that no unionist should lend their vote to Eastwood on Thursday as a result. But he insists that the arrangement changes nothing about his politics.

 “I think people will know that I’ve vociferously campaigned against Sinn Féin,” he says. “I’ve opposed abstentionism, I’ve opposed the things they did in the past. I opposed them, and that’s a given. Many, many unionists, particularly unionists from my constituency — a mile or two from the border — understand the damage that the DUP have done. If were a unionist I’d be pretty embarrassed by the way the DUP have let them down over the past couple of years. 

“So you don’t have to be a nationalist to be worried about Brexit. People here — nationalists, unionists or others — are very, very worried about Brexit and know how important votes in the parliament will be.”

He rejects the unionist argument that the SDLP — whose raison d’etre was to oppose sectarianism — have catalysed a polarisation along green and orange lines. “Unionism more generally has to get more confident. They have a case for their own position, they should be confident about it. I think we have a case for ours, but we can meet in the middle and have a democratic discussion. They’re always thinking that everything’s a loss, or something to be afraid of, or that we always have to go to the bottom of the barrel to scare people. That has failed unionism for decades.

Unionists, he says, must “sell a confident vision for the future — I sell mine. Let’s have a debate about it. Nobody has to feel threatened by an open discussion about the future. I think if people started approaching things like that, there’d be no need for banners or scaring people. Both traditions are equally valid, you know? It’s lazy for some people in Loyalism to say this is a sectarian thing. I mean, Jesus. Some of the people who are saying it are sectarian — it’s very hard to take. But the Green Party don’t believe them, because they recognise this is actually about Brexit, because Brexit is the biggest threat. 

“If you think about it, a month ago the DUP were the demons within the Loyalist community for supporting a border in the Irish Sea. And now some of those same people are putting up their posters. I think, particularly working-class Loyalists need to think who’s on their side, who’s sticking up for them. It’s certainly not the DUP.”

His pitch to Sinn Féin voters, meanwhile, is straightforward: “Look, we agree on 95 per cent of things. And even if our votes aren’t crucial in the next parliament, is it not better to have them in the bag than to not? There’s a lot of tough talk and no delivery. Nobody in Westminster. Your MP’s sitting outside, doing lots of media, lots of press releases. They’re not there when it counted. Abstentionism hasn’t worked, it’s been demonstrably failed.”

If Eastwood and Hanna do get to Westminster, what will their priorities be? He wants to see an end to Universal Credit and the bedroom tax, more investment in public services, and the opening of a new university in Derry. 

But the first task is altogether bigger: “The first order of business is to try, if possible, to stop Brexit. I know that seems like a lofty ambition, but we don’t know what the numbers game is going to be. We’d be happy to be part of a broad, progressive coalition that’s prepared to do whatever possible to stop Brexit. And if that is impossible, then to protect ourselves. Here. Because I just don’t trust Boris Johnson, I don’t trust the Tory government. I don’t trust, frankly, anybody’s government to look after our interests if we’re not there to look after them.”

Would Eastwood vote for Johnson’s deal? “Not yet. If it was a choice between that deal and a no deal and that choice was very stark and obvious then I would… We just don’t know what the next parliament’s going to look like.”

Eastwood rejects the argument that SDLP MPs will be impotent if it ends up looking very blue after a Johnson landslide. “Given that Northern Ireland, and Derry in particular, will be the most detrimentally affected by Brexit, we need someone there making the case. At times we’ll be making the case, at other times we’ll be influential, hopefully, in the outcome of votes. Both are important.

“And it isn’t just about Irish nationalism, or here. People here care deeply about international issues, about climate change. They worry about the fact that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump could walk us into anything. So people want a voice there, and it’s not because people in Derry love Westminster. There’s no love for it at all. They know it’s chaotic, but they also know it’s in charge, and they know it’s making the decisions.”

Nor, he says, will the SDLP act as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Labour — its sister party — or the SNP, with whom it maintains close links. “We’re our own people, so if we do get MPs elected we will take our own view. We were the sister party of a major party when they were in government, but we opposed many of the things that they did. We were against the Iraq war, we voted against some of the privatisation moves.

“But we would like to see a progressive government. We’d like to stop a Tory government, if possible. I think we will find ourselves at different moments in different lobbies with different people, but I think in this current crisis it’s important that many parties come together. Lib Dem, SNP, Labour, Plaid and others come together to provide a progressive sort of politics that’s maybe been missing. There hasn’t been enough of that in the last parliament.”

Would he use his pulpit to advocate for Irish unity? Some blame his mid-campaign call for a post-Brexit border poll with spooking unionists and delivering the SDLP’s poor result in 2017. “I always advocate for unity,” he says. “I think we have to do it cleverly. I worry about the people who stand on the back of lorries shouting tiocfaidh ár lá, thinking that’s going to bring unity. We’ve been at that for years. We’ve been at that for decades. It doesn’t work. 

“The way you get unity is you bring people together, it’s about stabilising the place. It’s about building relationships — nothing too scary. And actually doing the policy work that shows we can have a unified economy, we can have one health service, all those things. And doing all that work before we call the border poll is the clever thing to do.”

There’s a problem with this line of inquiry, of course: it takes for granted that the SDLP, in one form or another, are coming back to Westminster. Clearly, a repeat of 2017 would be a bad night — particularly given the new energy about its campaign. But what does success look like for Eastwood, objectively speaking? 

“I always avoid that question,” he says. “I don’t like avoiding questions, but I don’t like putting numbers on it. We’re fighting hard, and we’re probably realistically fighting hard in three constituencies. But we’re coming from a position of having no MPs, so I think we’ll have a good election in that regard. 

“Two years ago we were totally counted out. Commentators were saying the SDLP’s finally finished off. But we stuck at it, and I don’t think we are finished. I think we’re coming back, and I think the story in this election is that this election will be the revival, or the beginning of the revival, of the SDLP."

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.