Belfast Telegraph

SDLP leader welcomes nationalists letter to Taoiseach but says there needs to be a 'better strategy'

Sinn Fein says SDLP needs to stand together

Colum Eastwood
Colum Eastwood

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has welcomed the letter signed by 200 nationalists to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar over Brexit - but said there needs to be a "better strategy" as he placed blame on the Stormont impasse.

More than 200 figures from Northern Ireland society wrote to the Taoiseach warning that the UK's split from Europe is offensive and unacceptable.

Among the names from the world of sport, the arts, business, community work and the legal sector were Republic of Ireland footballer James McClean and Queen's University Professor Phil Scraton, who campaigned to expose the Hillsborough disaster.

The letter called for Mr Varadkar to "reassure us of your commitment to stand for equality and a human rights based society and your determination to secure and protect the rights of all citizens in the north of Ireland".

Mr Eastwood said his letter of response would be sent in full to each signatory.

The Foyle MLA said nationalism needs a "better strategy" and while he welcomed the initiative, he said "highlighting frustration and concern will not in itself be enough".

He said: “In welcoming the letter, I have written to confirm that I share much of the analysis expressed by these voices that northern nationalism finds itself simmering with frustration and concern. I agree with the letter’s assessment that northern nationalism does not find itself in a good place.

“However, I felt it was important to share my analysis and my assessment that much of our frustration emanates from the fact that nationalist opinion in the North is currently without power or place.

“The dangerous reality of our politics is that the only local party shaping our political present and future is the DUP – we therefore have every right and every reason to worry. This initiative by these signatories is welcome, however highlighting frustration and concern will not in itself be enough.

“Nationalism across this island deserves a better strategy than the one which has left us with no Assembly, no voice in the context of Brexit and is placing us at the mercy of a coalition between the DUP and the Tories at Westminster.

“It deserves a better strategy than the one which left no legacy of substantial economic or social success after 10 years at the top of government. It deserves a better strategy than the one which is no closer to reconciling with or persuading the unionist people of this island."

Mr Eastwood continued by acknowledging Sinn Fein's "electoral strength" but said it "has done nothing to strengthen the position of northern nationalism".

He said: "In fact it has resulted in a return to British Direct Rule.

“As a political leader it is my responsibility to lead people in order that we can break free from that failed strategy. I firmly believe re-establishing northern nationalism’s power and place can only be done through the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.  The only way our fundamental rights will be delivered as Irish citizens, especially as Brexit unfolds, is by having a local Executive and Assembly.

“The disrespect of the DUP towards any semblance of Irishness should not push us to abandon that ground – the ground which we built. My message to the public is that we must choose a strategy which doesn’t just read mood but instead seeks to deliver for all our interests.”

In response Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy said the SDLP should "stand up for rights".

The Newry and Armagh MLA said: “After the initiative was first criticised by some members of his party, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood has now welcomed it and that is a good thing.

“However, as a solution, he advocates a return to an executive without having addressed the issues of disrespect, the denial or rights, the lack of integrity and the failure to implement agreements that caused its collapse in the first place.

“Rights and equality is the only basis for the restoration of the political institutions. If the SDLP are calling for the restoration of the Assembly at any costs and accepting the anti-rights and anti-equality position of the DUP then let me make it absolutely clear that this is not going to happen.

“The answer now is for northern nationalism, along with the Irish Government, to stand firm for rights, for equality and against Brexit.

“The DUP’s blockade of rights is preventing a return to the institutions. The SDLP should join us to face down the DUP rather than calling for an unconditional restoration of the Assembly and Executive based on DUP prejudice and discrimination.

“Sinn Féin will continue to stand up for rights, for the agreements and for genuine power-sharing institutions. I would urge the SDLP to stand with us in that.”

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