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Colum Eastwood vows to reconnect with electorate as he bids to lead SDLP

Published 28/09/2015

Colum Eastwood has confirmed he will run for the leadership of the SDLP
Colum Eastwood has confirmed he will run for the leadership of the SDLP
Colum Eastwood said he believes 'now is the time for a new generation', as he confirmed he intends to run for the SDLP leadership

Colum Eastwood has said he is ready for the challenge of leading Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Confirming his intention to stand against Alasdair McDonnell, the 32-year-old Foyle MLA said the party requires reinvigoration.

"We need fresh ideas. We need to change tack and I think it is important that people step up when they are asked," he said.

Mr Eastwood secured nominations from nine branches and will contest Dr McDonnell at the party's annual conference in November.

He added: "I believe now is the time for a new generation to take forward not only the party, but the future direction of the country."

Mr Eastwood said he did not seek the nomination and fully respects Dr McDonnell - a veteran politician who has led the SDLP since 2011.

He said: "This is not about personalities. This is not about me or Alasdair. It is about ideas and inspiration.

"We have had a couple of very difficult elections. It hasn't been good and we have another election coming up.

"This has to be a long-term project - it can't just be about the next six months. I want to reconnect with the parts of the electorate we have lost and new parts of the electorate that we haven't ever had. I think I can do that."

Mr Eastwood, from the greater Shantallow area of Derry, is married with a three-month-old daughter Rosa, named after the American civil rights activist.

He has been an SDLP member since he was a teenager and entered elected politics aged 22.

At 27, he became Derry's youngest ever mayor in 2010 and was elected to the devolved Assembly at Stormont a year later.

He sits on the scrutiny committees of the Office of First and Deputy First Minister and the environment and was private secretary to former environment minister Alex Attwood.

In 2012, he caused controversy by carrying the coffin of a friend who was a former member of the Official IRA and the INLA, but defended his actions.

Reaffirming his commitment to achieving a united Ireland, Mr Eastwood said he would pursue a "new brand of progressive nationalism" focused on the future.

He said: "I believe in positive, progressive nationalism that understands that in order to achieve our eventual goals we need to make Northern Ireland work. It doesn't serve anybody for this place to be a basket case."

If elected, Mr Eastwood would be willing to work with controversial new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

"Of course we have a historic relationship with the British Labour Party - we are members of the European Socialists - we will continue that relationship.

"He hasn't said anything since he has become leader that would make us do anything different," he said.

An attempt to oust a sitting leader at the conference is an unusual step for the SDLP.

Mr Eastwood is being supported in his bid by the SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly, whose Lurgan branch was among those to propose him as a potential leader.

Mrs Kelly is also facing a battle to retain her role from South Belfast MLA Fearghal McKinney.

Dr McDonnell, a South Belfast MP who has led the SDLP since 2011, has come under increasing pressure to stand down from critics who claim the party cannot be led from Westminster.

He was recently forced to bat away stinging criticism from SDLP grandees Brid Rodgers and Seamus Mallon as well as from MP Mark Durkan.

Dr McDonnell, a renowned political bulldog, has vowed to face any challenge head on.

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