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Alasdair McDonnell faces new leadership challenge from SDLP young gun Colum Eastwood

By Rebecca Black

Published 26/09/2015

Alasdair McDonnell has been heavily criticised over his remarks
Alasdair McDonnell has been heavily criticised over his remarks
Challenge: Colum Eastwood

Beleaguered SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell is expected to face a challenge for his job.

It has emerged that Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood has been nominated by at least five branches of the party, as required to be considered a leadership candidate.

Mr Eastwood (32) is expected to confirm on Monday if he will run against Mr McDonnell, who has led the SDLP since 2011.

The news came after a further blow to the South Belfast MP yesterday when he faced a barrage of criticism for comments he made on Thursday.

He claimed the DUP "don't want a Taig about the place" and that Sinn Fein were "incapable of telling the truth".

Taig is a sectarian term for a Catholic derived from the once-common Irish Christian name Tadhg, pronounced 'tag'.

DUP minister Arlene Foster demanded Mr McDonnell apologise to the DUP and to Catholics for what he had said.

And Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey blasted Mr McDonnell as a "bumbling idiot" over his comments about the republican party.

Even his SDLP colleagues did not rush to his defence.

His deputy leader Dolores Kelly said she would not have chosen those words.

And Foyle MP and former SDLP leader Mark Durkan said he would prefer not to comment on the matter.

It is understood Ms Kelly may also face a challenge for her position from South Belfast MLA Fearghal McKinney.

Mr McDonnell had been speaking at the opening of a new party office in Glengormley on Thursday night when he made the comments.

He was recorded by the North Belfast News saying: "The DUP don't want partnership - they don't want a taig about the place. I'm sorry, it's as brutal as that. I'm not divisive, I don't like to be like that but they, at times, they've made it very clear to us they don't support the Good Friday Agreement, they don't support a lot of the changes that have taken place... Sinn Fein can't tell the truth. They just can't tell the truth, and they can tell us whatever they like."

He stood by the remarks, describing them as "said clearly, intentionally", and added they were made "against a backdrop of outrageous comments" from Mrs Foster.

The comments he was referring to occurred after Mrs Foster took over as Acting First Minister when she said she would protect Northern Ireland from "rogue" and "renegade" nationalist and republican ministers.

Mrs Foster said Mr McDonnell should say sorry for his comments on Thursday.

"Alasdair McDonnell should apologise today, not just for an inaccurate slur on the DUP, but for the offence he will undoubtedly have caused to many Catholics by referring to them as taigs," she said.

"Had any other elected representative used such language they would have stepped forward to apologise.

"It does not matter that Alasdair clearly was unaware his comments were being recorded. They are offensive and inaccurate."

The Acting First Minister added: "Whilst making his apology Dr McDonnell could also apologise for his party's support for the naming of a play park in honour of an IRA terrorist.

"He could also explain what kind of message is sent out by SDLP councillors supporting the early release of IRA terrorist Gerry McGeough whilst one of McGeough's victims was sitting in the same room."

Mrs Foster stepped in as Acting First Minister earlier this month after Peter Robinson stepped aside to deal with intensive talks following the crisis at Stormont sparked by suspicion the IRA murdered east Belfast man Kevin McGuigan.

She said the DUP will "continue to ensure that individual ministers cannot force through decisions which should go before the Executive for consideration".

"Only in the last few days the SDLP Environment Minister has announced his intention to prohibit the growing of GM crops," she said.

"That is a decision which is novel, controversial and cross-cutting, and as such it is not one he has the power to take alone, but should come before the Executive.

"Those are exactly the kind of decisions that I remained in post to prevent being forced through. Perhaps Dr McDonnell would like to explain why his minister prefers an 'ourselves alone' attitude instead of bringing it before the power-sharing Executive, as the law demands."

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