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Colum Eastwood: It's no done deal that I'll back Stormont pact

New leader of SDLP warns he will not support a 'hash'

By Liam Clarke

Published 16/11/2015

Newly elected SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has his arm raised by outgoing deputy leader Dolores Kelly, watched by outgoing leader Alasdair McDonnell (right) and newly elected deputy leader Fearghal McKinney
Newly elected SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has his arm raised by outgoing deputy leader Dolores Kelly, watched by outgoing leader Alasdair McDonnell (right) and newly elected deputy leader Fearghal McKinney
Colum Eastwood is congratulated on his win by Alasdair McDonnell
Colum Eastwood, with wife Rachael and their five-month-old daughter Rosa, is congratulated by party colleagues Alban Maginness and Mark H Durkan on Saturday

The new SDLP leader has warned that he will not automatically support any deal agreed between Sinn Fein and the DUP this week if it turns out to be "a hash".

After winning Saturday's leadership election against Dr Alasdair McDonnell, Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood (32) - the nationalist party's youngest-ever leader - also pledged to unite the party and make it win again.

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

Later, Mr Eastwood said he had kept himself informed about the crisis talks to save Stormont.

"At this point I don't know how it is going to develop. I hope there is a deal and that it is a good deal but we won't sign up to anything that isn't substantial enough and which will have to be renegotiated again in six months' time," he said.

"Everyone is fed up with the constant negotiating. We won't be signing up to a hash. It has to be substantial and sustainable."

He pointed out that politicians here had been holding crisis discussions annually for the past three years.

The new SDLP leader seems determined to use whatever leverage he can in negotiations. He will consider entering opposition after the next election if the SDLP does not get enough of its policies included in the Executive's Programme for Government.

He explained: "We would never go into an election saying we were going to go into opposition."

"We would seek a mandate for government and if we got a strong enough mandate we would enter negotiations for the Programme for Government.

"If we were not going to achieve what we want in the Programme for Government we would have to think about whether we would go into opposition at that point.

"Our support cannot simply be taken for granted."

In the past the SDLP has not supported Executive budgets but has stayed in government. That would be another point at which he would make a choice.

Mr Eastwood admits his party has a hill to climb, after years of declining election result, and won't predict results.

"The reason I ran for the leadership was that I realised we were in a difficult situation after a couple of very difficult elections. We also had a difficult opinion poll in the Belfast Telegraph recently, so I am under no illusions that things can be fixed between now and May," he said.

"What we can do is make an effort to turn things around and put the SDLP back where they should be. I am not going to make any predictions or tie myself to figures now."

Mr Eastwood had been supported by Dolores Kelly, deputy leader under his predecessor Dr McDonnell. However, she lost the post to Fearghal McKinney, the former UTV anchorman who had been close to Dr McDonnell.

"Fearghal and I are going to unite the party. The first thing I said to Fearghal is, 'We will work together.' I feel very sorry for Dolores, she has been a fantastic deputy leader but she will continue to be a very important part of the leadership team," Mr Eastwood said.

"Alasdair is also a very important member of the parliamentary team. He is MP for South Belfast," he said, promising a continuing role for both.

Mr Eastwood said he agreed with delegates who said, in the Telegraph survey, that they would vote in a referendum for Irish unity to take place in five years' time. But he qualified his view.

"People have to understand though that unity is something we have to work towards. Five years sounds about right once a decision in principle was taken," he said.

"I am not going to pretend that we can get Irish unity in five years time, that would be foolish to say. I know other people have said they would get it by 2016 but that is nonsense.

"We need a reconciled country, that is the most important. The work now is to develop all Ireland policies on the economy, the health service and things that are practical and helpful.

"There is no need for flag waving and sloganeering."

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.

Belfast Telegraph

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