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Young pretender: Alex Kane profiles the SDLP's Colum Eastwood

By Alex Kane

He was the youngest-ever Derry Mayor at 27 and now, at 32, has the backing of the SDLP's 'big beasts' to unseat Alasdair McDonnell in today's leadership election. But the image of Colum Eastwood carrying an INLA terrorist's coffin refuses to go away.

The first question that springs to mind about Colum Eastwood's leadership challenge against Alasdair McDonnell is: why now? All of the polling, anecdotal and doorstep evidence suggests that the SDLP is going to take another hammering at next May's Assembly elections.

Indeed, an internal report - leaked to the media last week - suggests that the party could lose five seats and fall below the Alliance Party. According to the report, former minister Alex Attwood could take a hit in West Belfast, while Fearghal McKinney (one of McDonnell's key allies and a candidate for the deputy leadership) could also fail to hold his seat in South Belfast.

Against that sort of background - and with only six months to deliver a miraculous turnaround, even if he did win - surely it would have made sense for Eastwood to have let McDonnell take the hit and then led a swift, brutal coup in the aftermath?

He dismisses that approach: "It would have been very easy for me to ignore what the public are saying, to ignore what our members are saying, to ignore what our supporters are saying.

"So, yes, it would have been very easy for me to sit back. We are going to do well here (in his Foyle constituency) and return three MLAs. But I think it would have been reckless for me just to sit on my hands. I want to lead the SDLP and I think this challenge is an act of leadership."

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It's pretty clear that there is a sense of panic in the SDLP, the sort of panic that did so much internal and electoral damage to the UUP between 1998 and 2005 and from which they are just beginning to recover.

An SDLP veteran told me last week, "You look at someone like Mike Nesbitt, with no legacy baggage to his name and within a year he was beginning to turn around the UUP. That's why the SDLP needs someone like Eastwood.

"We need someone who actually looks like the future of the party, rather than a throwback to the glory days. Alasdair has served the party well, particularly during the darkest days, but we desperately need someone that younger voters can relate to."

Eastwood certainly speaks the language of the young: "During this campaign, I've bigged up the party and I've bigged up my colleagues." Yet, in party political terms, he almost qualifies as a veteran in his own right, admitting that this is the 18th SDLP conference he has attended - even though he's only 32.

He's already been Mayor of Derry - just 27 at the time - and is one of the youngest members of the Assembly. That said, he has never held ministerial office (nor had McDonnell), or chaired an Assembly committee, and, as McDonnell has noted as regards Alex Attwood's worst-ever election result for the SDLP in the last Euro election, "It was my rival who was, in fact, the manager of that campaign, in charge of that campaign, and I rest the case there".

A number of people - and not just in the McDonnell camp - have suggested that Eastwood is merely a vehicle for an "anyone-but-Alasdair" putsch. He seemed to confirm that in a recent interview when he said, "Others put my hat in the ring and I responded to the call."

And it's probably no surprise that so many of the party's old guard - the latest being John Hume's wife, Pat - have rallied to his side. They fear that the SDLP cannot take another massive hit and they also believe that the road to recovery cannot begin after that hit. So Eastwood is their best, maybe last, hope of survival.

How do unionists rate him? He has hardly mentioned them at all during the campaign, leading some to think that he doesn't regard them as a priority. And his shift to what some have described as a "greening" of the SDLP has fuelled the suspicion that eclipsing Sinn Fein ranks higher for him than replacing the Sinn Fein/DUP axis with a more co-operative, consensual UUP/SDLP/Alliance axis - although he does say that the "centre ground needs to be reclaimed".

The other difficulty they have with him - as do some SDLP supporters, too - was his decision to carry the coffin of former Official IRA and INLA member Seamus Coyle in April 2012.

The coffin was flanked by a colour party dressed in paramilitary uniform, shortly before a dozen shots were fired (Eastwood says he "wasn't present for any volley of shots") over it by an IRA member to "show the Derry man's status within the broad republican movement". Senior UUP and DUP politicians expressed their concerns at the time, describing his actions as "inappropriate".

Eastwood has never apologised, standing by his view that, "What we do in my community is we go to funerals and, if we're asked, we carry the coffin. I think I did what was the right thing to do in my community. I think we have to reach out across divides. I knew Seamus very well. He was on a journey. He may not have become deputy First Minister, but he was on his own journey."

He has stuck to this position during his leadership campaign, although when I ask if he would do it again he replies, "I would think about how the family might feel if it was to cause controversy." I ask him if he has "forgiven" Coyle for his past: "It is not a question of forgiveness. I didn't agree with his politics, but it is my job as a politician to do all I can to bring about reconciliation."

The fact that the issue hasn't been raised by anyone other than unionists and the media during the campaign suggests that it won't be a factor for delegates voting during the conference. But, if he does win, he can take it as a given that it will be raised again and again during the Assembly election campaign.

Eastwood says that he doesn't come from a political family.

His father, Paul, is retired, but taught in St Joseph's College in Creggan. His mother, Deirdre, still teaches at St John's Primary School, also in Creggan. His brother, Liam, works in fashion in London; sister Nora works in public relations in Dublin; and youngest brother, Peter, has just finished a degree at the Glasgow School of Art.

Colum was educated at St John's, St Columb's College and the University of Liverpool. He is married to Rachael and their daughter, Rosa, is four months old.

He joined the SDLP in 1998 - he would have been around 14 - "to campaign for the Good Friday Agreement. I was drawn to the party by Hume, Seamus Mallon and the other political giants of that time that fundamentally changed politics across the island. Why would I even have considered another party?"

Those political giants have now thrown their very considerable weight behind him: "I've had a fantastic response from party delegates across the north. And when you have people like Seamus Mallon backing you, then delegates should listen to his judgment, because we've always backed his judgment in the past."

But will the support of the giants be enough to beat the "bull in the china shop" that is Alasdair McDonnell? It's going to be close and a lot may depend on how well McDonnell performs during his prime spot leadership speech during the conference (Eastwood won't have a similar platform. And voting doesn't close until three hours after McDonnell has finished).

Yet it strikes me that Eastwood remains light on detail, not having gone much further than, "The most important thing is we set out a positive vision for the future and that we communicate it properly".

If nothing else, though, Eastwood's challenge has focused minds and made the SDLP face some very unpalatable, very uncomfortable home truths.

If McDonnell can't persuade enough delegates, even at this late stage, that he has a credible plan to avoid electoral catastrophe, then maybe, just maybe, Eastwood will carry the day.

As one of those "giants" told me two weeks ago: "The fact that he isn't McDonnell will be enough for a lot of the delegates."

A life so far

Born in Londonderry in 1983, he is one of four children

He joined the SDLP in 1998, still in his mid-teens

Aged 27 he was the youngest-ever Mayor of Derry

He was elected to the Assembly in 2011 and is one of its youngest members

He is married to Rachael and they have a four-month-old daughter, Rosa

He holds a black belt in ju-jitsu

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