Voters can save devolution by opting for change, says SDLP leader
The Assembly election is a critical moment for the future of powersharing in Northern Ireland, with voters facing a stark choice between saving devolution or a return to direct rule, the SDLP leader has said.
Colum Eastwood claimed the DUP and Sinn Fein's inability to resolve their differences meant power would likely be transferred back to Westminster if the parties were returned to lead roles at Stormont Castle after the snap poll.
But he insisted devolution could work for the people if they opted for change on March 2.
"Devolution belongs to the people - it should not be removed because some parties are not capable of the challenge and the compromise of being in government," he said.
"In that context, people in the North have a fundamental and defining choice."
He added: "If you believe that nationalists and unionists can share power and work together for the common good - then come out and vote for that on March 2."
Launching his party manifesto, Mr Eastwood heavily criticised the DUP's record in government and accused Sinn Fein of letting the lead unionist party "run rings round them".
The SDLP manifesto prioritises the issues of health and Brexit.
At the launch event in Newtownabbey, Mr Eastwood vowed not to "play politics" with the problems facing the region's health service.
He said his party would strike an emergency budget to focus on health spending on its first day in office, if elected to a lead role at Stormont.
"Taking the politics out of health doesn't mean though that we stay silent on the crisis which is currently facing the NHS and its staff," he added.
"Taking the politics out of health doesn't mean that politics ignores the health crisis.
"In the North, three times as many patients waited more than 12 hours in A&E last year.
"People with urgent cancer referrals are waiting over 62 days for their first treatment.
"Forty thousand patients wait over a year for a first outpatient appointment."
Referring to DUP leader Arlene Foster's much-discussed use of the name "crocodile" to describe Sinn Fein representatives, the SDLP leader said: "It is a disgrace that crocodiles have been given more mention than the crisis in health during the course of this campaign.
"That is why I am putting health at the centre of this manifesto and at the centre of this launch."
Mr Eastwood said Brexit posed the "biggest threat to the economic, social and political interests of these islands".
"Northern Ireland is the most exposed of any part of these islands and yet our voice faces the risk of being side-lined and silenced," he said.
"After what has felt like a long lead up since the referendum result, these islands are about to face into the true and transformative consequences of Brexit."
He reiterated his party's desire to secure special EU status for Northern Ireland once the UK leaves the EU.
"Special status means that the vote in the North last June is respected," he said.
"It means that the political authority of devolved institutions are respected - giving them the opportunity to shape Brexit in their respective regions.
"Special status means that our economy, our society and our political agreements are protected.
"It means that we retain the four freedoms of the European Union and that we do not see the return of border checks on this island.
"For the North, special status means that what we have, we hold."