Belfast Telegraph

Colum Eastwood: 'We have got to future-gaze, not focus on looking back'

The Big Interview

Noel McAdam talks to new SDLP leader Colum Eastwood about his vision for the party, the prospect of entering Opposition and Saturday night conference speeches.

Q. Would you agree your brief period as leader has so fear been lacklustre?

A. No, I don't agree. We have an election coming up that is a very important election for us, and obviously there are internal issues that we don't need to talk about here. I'm more interested in the external face of the party.

Q. But given the short time before the election, did you not need to hit the ground running?

A. I have put in a whole new team of MLAs and party spokespersons and reshuffled the team, and people will see that some of the top positions have gone to new and talented people. This is a long-term plan. I'm not going to be doing all the interviews myself.

Q. Do you feel you have made the public impact you would have wanted to?

A. It is all about building the party back to its previous strength, which is not going to be achieved in just a few months. But I have never seen the party more enthused about the future than it is at the minute.

Q. So three months in, what do you point to as making your mark?

A. When in a political party you are making changes and appointing a team, but there are usually political fallouts and arguments. None of that has happened. People know that there is a need for a shift in the party, and they are behind what I am doing.

Q. You have said the SDLP message needed to be heard more clearly. Do you think you have achieved that?

A. I wanted a strong focus on policies and ideas. One of those was to move our conference to spring, and I think it has been a launching pad for our election campaign.

Q. I was surprised to hear that this is only the third time in more than 40 years that the SDLP conference has been held in Londonderry. Why was that?

A. I was surprised when I first heard that, too. I think there were issues around the size of the hotels and how a full conference could be accommodated, but as you know, the conference is in a new venue, which is a very old institution in the city.

St Columb's Hall is like Derry's Ulster Hall, and to me there is no better example of what we are about - working with the old, in terms of the building, but bringing new life to it.

Q. You had said at the time when you took over from Alasdair (McDonnell) you thought the SDLP message "needed to be more audible". Do you think you have made your message louder?

A. It is all about a process. We are still setting out our policies and ideas, and that is what a lot of the conference was about. We have moved away from the old internal debates to really engaging across a range of issues with wider society. Of course, it is not all about me.

Q. Yet the Assembly election is largely going to be about you. Do you see it as your first test as leader?

A. There is going to be an element of that, yes. But at the very beginning of the last Assembly mandate Peter Robinson said the term was going to be about, and would be judged on, delivery. Has that been the case? We have a range of proposals which will be in our manifesto which will resonate with people.

Q. What more do you hope to achieve this side of the Assembly election?

A. We are going for a whole new style of politics and I think one of the biggest changes is that we have said, on the far side of the election, we are prepared to consider going into opposition if the negotiations on agreeing a Programme for Government are not successful.

Q. But isn't it just confusing saying to your voters, yes we want to be in the Executive, but as a result of conversations in which we will be only one of five parties on the far side of the election, we may end up in Opposition?

A. I don't think it is confusing at all. We have made it very clear that we are in the running to be in government. I have never met a politician yet who did not want to be in government ultimately - well, maybe in the Republic at the moment (laughs).

We hope to go into those negotiations with a strong hand and we want people to feel positive in voting for us, but, if we find that we are just not being listened to, it's possible we will be looking at a decision to go into Opposition.

Q. There was disappointment over the SDLP backing the DUP's panel in relation to the abortion issue recently - did you pick up on that?

A. The abortion issue is one which people feel very strongly about. It is a very sensitive issue and one I expect divides not only communities but even families. But I thought a panel which can look at the legal and health implications of all of this was probably pretty sensible.

It was not sensible to put amendments down at the very end of a Bill, at the very end of a mandate and attach them to a Bill which is also dealing with firearms licences. That is a bit strange. I do not want to play politics with this issue.

Q. I was told some members of SDLP Youth had resigned over it, is that correct?

A. I was at a meeting of young people last week and there were about 50 there including some who are thinking of joining the party, and the issue came up and was discussed and nobody walked out.

I have written to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister asking about draft guidance for health and social care professionals on termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland, which was circulated within the Executive in December 2015.

To date the Executive has not discussed the document and no indication has been given regarding when it will be discussed.

We have engaged with senior medical specialists and their view is that both publication and approval of updated guidelines are vitally important. In that context, the guidelines can assist in providing clarity to the medical profession.

Q. I believe you have a black belt in jiu jitsu - does karate come in handy at some of those Stormont committees ?

A. I haven't had to use it yet but you might say there have been times I have been tempted. The fact is I am a bit rusty. I have not been getting down to the mats as much over this past year or so, this job probably has a lot to do with that.

Q. You called your first baby Rosa, and your wife's maiden name is Parkes - yet you were born yourself 30 years after Rosa Parkes was put off the bus (in the USA) for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger. Quite a legacy and a burden for your daughter, wouldn't you say?

A. That's a strange way of putting it. There are so many examples of strong women, role models of people who have changed lives and there is none better than Rosa Parkes.

Q. And then your wife of two years both owns a pub and is a soul singer?

A. She is. She's something else. Rachel is a fantastic singer and businesswoman. And as an events organiser she is great. She also understands people very well, and that is a great quality when you are married to someone like me.

Q. You bear quite a heavy legacy yourself in political terms and in terms of this city - not just the giant figure of John Hume, but Mark Durkan. Hard acts to follow?

A When you think of what those people achieved it is absolutely enormous, as well, of course, as all of the ordinary people who were out knocking on doors and who together made it easier for someone my age to become involved in politics, and not only that but to live more normal lives. I am keenly aware of the legacy of all of that on a daily basis.

Q. And you joined the party at 14 - odd for a teenager, surely?

A. It may well be, although I would have to say I think I was a normal teenager, I played football and did all the other things that teenagers do. But this was in 1998 (the year of the Good Friday Agreement) and at that stage this party was delivering and building on a fundamental shift in Irish politics. The SDLP was future-gazing at a point when many others thought the party had gone mad.

And I think this is a criticism of the party in recent years, we have been too focused on looking back. We have got to be future-gazing, and that is the next phase of politics I want to see.

Q. What do you mean by that?

A. We have to move on to build a fairer society. The idea that it's enough for us to have a government is an old one now. We need to have a government that works, that delivers for people. We want to use the institutions to change society, and not to rest on our laurels.

It isn't good that 37% of our young people have to go to university elsewhere and that there are 24,000 young people looking at how they can find work.

Q. Yet in your own youth you didn't finish your Latin American studies degree at Liverpool. Why not?

A. There were lots of reasons, some of them personal, but basically I ended up running for election (as a councillor to Derry City Council) when I wasn't really supposed to win and I did.

Q. But then from an activist student to become the mayor of Derry in a few years, the youngest ever at the age of 27. Quite a transition?

A. Not really. I was an activist student in terms of the campaign of stopping the war in Iraq, which I thought was a mistake. If that was happening now I would still be marching. I don't see that as radical.

Q But in just a few years you went from protesting to wearing the chain of a mayor, the very epitome of respectability and Establishment?

A. I don't know about 'Establishment', but that's the thing about democracy. I was elected to represent people in Derry and it was an honour for me to be elected as mayor. There is a time for protesting and a time when you have to roll up the sleeves.

I was proud to be mayor on the day of the Saville Inquiry report and see that dark cloud lift off the people of Derry, which was amazing, and then to go back to Liverpool as part of the bid to become the City of Culture, which we did.

Q. You've managed to avoid any major gaffes so far but your friendship with Seamus Coyle and carrying his coffin is always going to come up. (Coyle, who was associated with both the Irish National Liberation Army and the Official IRA, died in 2012). Do you think it is unfair?

A. I am not going to go down that road. I think it is unfair on his family. I have been asked this time and time again and I am happy to explain again. Seamus was a friend of mine and we were very close. It didn't mean I have or had any sympathy for the INLA, I have been against violence all my life.

We are all on our own poltical and personal journeys, Seamus did not end up as Deputy First Minister, but there is a tradition in our communities that we carry people's coffins.

Q. You are the fourth leader of the SDLP in six years (following Alasdair McDonnell, Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan). How are you going to ensure your staying power?

A. It's a funny way of putting it. I have a lot of time ahead. I am 32 and this is a long-term project. It is not about firefighting, surviving it is about leading a party that can change society in the way it did in the past.

Q. You said you had taken over from Alasdair with the party at a "low ebb" - what did you mean by that?

A. I felt the atmosphere was flat. I don't lay that at the door of any one person in particular. We all have a responsibility for that.

Q. So how many seats are you going to win - is it the same for you as what (UUP leader) Mike Nesbitt said, that gaining one seat is victory, losing one defeat?

A. I think we are going to do quite well. But I know from long experience not to get involved in the predictions game.

Q. So why did you decide to move your annual conference from the autumn to the spring?

A. Well, spring is just a better time for it, don't you think? The time of renewal and building for the future. And I wanted to move away from the focus on all our internal debates and freshen up the format. It is now all about engaging with key sectors and ideas with a series of prominent speakers and experts in their field.

Q. Yet wasn't your decision to make your speech at 8.30pm on a Saturday when people are sitting down to The X Factor as likely to be off-putting as to win new supporters?

A. I think it was more interesting than X Factor, which I have had to sit through myself at times. It certainly is a better slot than the other parties (around noon on Saturdays) when people are out shopping or ferrying their children somewhere. It is a slot which parties in the South have been using.

Q. And what did you make of Lord Kilclooney attacking you for being so rude to Theresa Villiers? (he accused Eastwood of total irresponsibility in attacking the Secretary of State's position on the EU referendum in a letter to The Irish News).

A. It is good that he wanted to come to the Secretary of State's defence, I am not sure he was always as responsible. He is entitled to his opinion, I am entitled to mine.

The point which I have made directly to Theresa Villiers as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is that she should not be giving the impression she is speaking for Northern Ireland when she is arguing for leaving the EU. It is a totally untenable position.

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