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New SDLP leader Colum Eastwood: I'll make us winners again

The SDLP's youngest-ever leader has pledged to unite the party and make it win again.

Colum Eastwood, 32, promised to re-engage the electorate in a fresh political conversation after he defeated incumbent Dr Alasdair McDonnell in the race for the SDLP's top post.

Alasdair McDonnell placing his vote at the SDLP 2015 Conference at the Armagh City Hotel. Picture by Carrie Davenport / SDLP / Press Eye.
Alasdair McDonnell placing his vote at the SDLP 2015 Conference at the Armagh City Hotel. Picture by Carrie Davenport / SDLP / Press Eye.

The Foyle Assembly Member and former mayor of Londonderry secured 172 votes to Dr McDonnell's 133 in the election at the party's annual conference in Armagh.

Mr Eastwood was only 14 at the SDLP's zenith when the party played a key role in securing the historic Good Friday peace agreement.

In the decades since its star has gradually waned in the face of the electoral march of Sinn Fein.

In a rousing acceptance speech to the party faithful in the Armagh City Hotel, Mr Eastwood said he refused to accept the SDLP was condemned to political obscurity.

"We have been asked, conference, to quietly accept the inevitable, to go quietly into the night," he said.

"But the timeless fascination and attraction of politics is, there is no such thing as the inevitable. There is a future to be fought for."

He told delegates "big ideas could turn the tide".

"We can make the political weather again, we can win again, it's time to win again - let's unite, let's win together," he concluded, as party members rose to cheer and applaud their new leader.

Earlier, outgoing leader Mr McDonnell appeared emotional as he wished Mr Eastwood well.

"I have given my all and then a bit more to this party," he said.

South Belfast MLA Fearghal McKinney ousted SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly in the other main vote at the conference.

Alban Magennis, Margaret Ritchie, Michael O'Reilly (Irish Government 1916-2016 Commemoration Commission) and Alasdair McDonell at the SDLP conference 2015 at the Armagh City Hotel. Picture by Carrie Davenport / SDLP / Press Eye.
Alban Magennis, Margaret Ritchie, Michael O'Reilly (Irish Government 1916-2016 Commemoration Commission) and Alasdair McDonell at the SDLP conference 2015 at the Armagh City Hotel. Picture by Carrie Davenport / SDLP / Press Eye.
Dolores Kelly placing her vote at the SDLP 2015 Conference. Picture by Carrie Davenport / SDLP / Press Eye.

Mr Eastwood told the conference the SDLP's new vision of "progressive nationalism" was "badly needed".

He claimed Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists had mismanaged governance at Stormont and had created public cynicism in politics.

"They talk big about fresh starts and new beginnings - no-one is fooled," he said.

Connor Duncan, Michael O'Reilly (Irish Government 1916-2016 Commemoration Commission) and Alasdair McDonell at the SDLP conference 2015 at the Armagh City Hotel. Picture by Carrie Davenport / SDLP / Press Eye.
Connor Duncan, Michael O'Reilly (Irish Government 1916-2016 Commemoration Commission) and Alasdair McDonell at the SDLP conference 2015 at the Armagh City Hotel. Picture by Carrie Davenport / SDLP / Press Eye.

"In truth they are tired out."

He added: "They have had eight years. They have shown themselves incapable of making the next intellectual leap needed for the delivery of good governance. It is our job to demonstrate that as an alternative we can.

"We must demonstrate that the SDLP is again capable of showing that high politics, at its best, is of real value to people. We must show that politics is again capable of creating a change we all want to see.

"We have to show ourselves to be good enough, to be competent enough to earn that trust."

Three years ago, Mr Eastwood caused controversy when he carried the coffin of a republican friend at a paramilitary-style funeral.

In his first speech as leader he launched a strong attack against the "vanity and insanity" of dissident republicans and stressed the extremists' fight was not with the British government - it was with the people of Ireland.

"There will only ever be one winner in that battle," he said.

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