We're in for a long spell of Direct Rule if public stick with DUP and Sinn Fein, insists Eastwood
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has warned the return of the DUP and Sinn Fein as the largest Assembly parties will mean a protracted period of Direct Rule, with "hard right Tories" running Northern Ireland.
In an appeal for people to "vote for change" he also argued the DUP has been "running rings around" Sinn Fein at Stormont.
But while it was easy to pull the Assembly and Executive institutions down, history had shown that "getting them back is much more difficult", he said.
Launching his party's manifesto with just a week to go before the March 2 election, Mr Eastwood also made clear he is encouraging nationalists to transfer their votes "across community lines" to unionists.
"The public are way ahead of us here, they have been doing this for many years," he said.
Responding to Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt's disclosure that he intends to give a second preference vote to the SDLP candidate in east Belfast, he said: "It doesn't make me less of a nationalist in saying I want to work with Mike Nesbitt - or the UUP chief less of a unionist to support a partnership with the SDLP.
"We have unwilling partners at the minute," he told the launch event in Newtownabbey. "If we elect Sinn Fein and the DUP we are not going to have a government. We are going to have Direct Rule.
"Only last May Sinn Fein and the DUP offered what they called their 'Fresh Start' - 10 months later that government has now failed.
"If we are going to have government, people need to vote for the middle ground."
Mr Eastwood admitted it did not take a "political wizard" to recognise that the party has had several bad election results.
"I ran for the leadership because I recognised that," he said.
The SDLP manifesto 'Make Change Happen' proposes the most extensive reform of the Stormont system since the Good Friday Agreement, including reducing the numbers of special advisers and their salaries and reviewing their roles.
It suggests the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should be elected jointly by the Assembly and the Speaker elected by secret ballot.
"Sinn Fein has been consistently outpaced and outmanoeuvred by the DUP, which has been running rings around them," Mr Eastwood said.
Although the third party leader in as many days to unveil their manifestos, Mr Eastwood revealed that along with the DUP's Arlene Foster and Alliance chief Naomi Long, he is also suffering from flu.
"I am not sure whether it is man flu or woman flu - flu of some description," he said, although then made clear that, unlike Mrs Foster, he would be taking media questions.
The outgoing Foyle MLA said he was putting health and Brexit to the forefront, and remarked it was a "disgrace" that Mrs Foster's likening of republicans to "crocodiles" had been referenced more during the campaign than the health service crisis.
"There are no easy solutions to health. The SDLP will never pretend there are. We must take the politics out of health - but that doesn't mean that we stay silent on the crisis," he added.
Brexit, he warned, poses the "biggest threat to the economic, social and political interests of these islands".
Reiterating his party's call for special status within the EU for the province, he argued: "Northern Ireland is the most exposed of any part of these islands and yet our voice faces the risk of being sidelined and silenced."