Colum Eastwood: Why I carried INLA man's coffin
Eastwood defends funeral role as he launches bid to lead SDLP
The challenger for the leadership of the SDLP has defended his controversial decision to carry the coffin of a republican veteran as masked men walked alongside the funeral cortege.
Colum Eastwood yesterday confirmed he intended to stand against Dr Alasdair McDonnell at next month's party conference, saying he was "hungry for change and ready for leadership".
The Foyle MLA caused controversy in 2012 by carrying the coffin of a friend who was a former paramilitary, Seamus 'Chang' Coyle.
Mr Eastwood defended his decision to take part in the funeral of the Official IRA and INLA member with masked men.
"Seamus Coyle was a friend of mine from school. It was difficult for me politically to carry that coffin but it was important to me on a personal level," he said.
"I understand that people have difficulties with it, I completely understand, but we also have to understand that sometimes in death you have to pay respects."
Mr Eastwood (32) said his challenge to Dr McDonnell "was not personal". He said politics needed "a new generation" and paid tribute to Dr McDonnell (66) for "giving his life to the SDLP". However, other parties and SDLP members will be looking not just at his age and energy but areas where he may change policy.
In his statement of acceptance, Mr Eastwood said: "As a proud nationalist, I believe deeply in a united Ireland.
"I want progressive nationalism to go much further on unity than the mere sloganising that until now has been trying to pass itself off as strategy. I want the SDLP to set out exactly what a new united Ireland will look like, and to set about convincing all the people of Ireland of the value of our convictions."
This sets him in direct competition with Sinn Fein which is working on its own plan.
However, in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Eastwood stressed that the first priority would be making Northern Ireland work.
He stated: "I have not changed my belief in a united Ireland, but I am not silly enough to think that the way to do that is by making Northern Ireland a basket case and falling into the south.
"In nationalism generally, there tends to be a sneaking regard for the idea of a 'failed political entity' as the road to unity. We have to get away from that, we have to make Northern Ireland work. Then we have a conversation about where we are going to go next."
In the here and now, Mr Eastwood favours creating an opposition at Stormont. This follows the UUP unilaterally entering opposition last month and an opposition Bill drawn up by John McCallister, an independent unionist. Mr Eastwood said: "There should be a place called opposition. We will gladly look at the detail of John McCallister's Bill. That is our position but we would never lead a party into an election saying we were going into opposition. We would seek a mandate to govern and then after the election if the structures were in place we would take the decision on what to do based on the balance of forces."
Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly, who is running again for the deputy leadership and supports Mr Eastwood, added that she would like to have talks with the Ulster Unionists to see if they could agree enough priorities in common to provide an alternative administration.
Ms Kelly would like a more 'labour' tinge to the SDLP.
"An Eastwood/Kelly leadership would set out to stop sectarian politics and stop looking over our shoulder at Sinn Fein," she said.
"Let's forget about them and just concentrate on the SDLP. We need to look at how society is structured. We need to talk about integrated education and actively promote it; we need to promote social justice."
The other candidate nominated as deputy, Fearghal McKinney, said he would spend the next three weeks engaging with the SDLP's councillors and local organisation to gauge support.