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SDLP Party Leader Colum Eastwood decision to form Stormont opposition: Full statement

Published 19/05/2016

Colum Eastwood
Colum Eastwood

Throughout the course of the recent election campaign the SDLP made a clear promise to the public.

We vowed to fight hard to negotiate a credible and progressive Programme for Government which would actually meet the needs of people in Northern Ireland.

Our ambition sought to implement specific policies which were designed to stop the continuing tide of emigration, to invest in our young people and their education, to protect our elderly, to spread wealth and opportunity across the whole region and to build a modern, prosperous economy.

Since the election two weeks ago we have met with senior civil servants in many major departments of government here. In the last number of days we have responded to draft documents submitted to all parties by the head of the civil service and have further submitted our own papers on the economy, health, childcare, justice, child poverty and others.

We have kept our promise to the electorate. We have tried to negotiate a progressive programme for change on their behalf. Over the last two weeks, we have put in the hard yards by putting in the hard work. We have not rushed to judgement.

After a long two weeks, despite our best efforts, it has become clear that our ambition for a full Programme for Government will not be matched by the document currently constructed by the DUP and Sinn Féin. We fear that its inherent vagueness will fall far short of what is required.

Today I can formally announce that, after a unanimous decision by the SDLP Assembly group and our party’s Executive, over the course of this Assembly mandate we intend to form a constructive opposition to the Stormont Executive.

A new and refreshed SDLP team will now tirelessly hold this government to account. We will offer constructive criticism and offer a progressive alternative to government.

Entering into opposition is not an easy decision to make, particularly for a Nationalist party in the North. Since partition, our community was long denied power in this very building and therefore we have long been in opposition. That memory runs deep.

But those were different days and this is a different Ireland.

Equality provisions and protections for both communities are now enshrined and guaranteed by international treaties and by two governments. Power-sharing between Unionism and Nationalism remains locked in. The days of sectarian majority rule are now gone and will never return.

Our new reality asks that we do things differently. We have listened to the public. People are now demanding that we mature beyond the bare essentials of just peace and political stability. They are rightly demanding that our politics delivers more.

Today’s decision is also a difficult and courageous decision for the SDLP as a party.

As the architects and builders of the institutions in all 3 Strands of the Agreement, we have until now found ourselves reluctant to leave the responsibilities of government solely to the parties who fought their establishment and hindered their operation.

That was a natural reluctance. It was a reluctance to give the keys of the house to those who had very little part to play in laying that house’s foundation, never mind in actually building it, brick by brick.

For the good of our politics, the SDLP is now breaking free from that past reluctance.

The Good Friday Agreement was always intended to be a living document. It was never meant to be a document frozen in time. The evolution of our political structures is not a vice. A new opposition at Stormont is one such evolution.

Change is as constant a feature in politics as it is in life. Those who oppose such change will find themselves pushing against an ocean of opinion and positioned on the wrong side of history.

We wish the First and deputy First Ministers well in the time ahead. The privilege of power has been bestowed upon them by the people of Northern Ireland.

The SDLP will be an unrelenting force in the life of the next Assembly, protecting the interests of those who delivered that power and tirelessly holding those who wield it to account.

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