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The new leader of the SDLP is 33 years old. He says it's time for Gerry Adams and the old guard to move on

Derryman Colum Eastwood stopped by TheJournal.ie for an interview.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

THE NEW LEADER of the SDLP Colum Eastwood is the joint-youngest leader of any political party in the North. He says it’s time for Gerry Adams and the old guard to move on.

At the age of 33, Eastwood represents a new breed of Northern leader, one that’s at least a generation younger than Adams (67) and Martin McGuinness (66).

He wants Irish politics to become “normal”. And for that, he says, we need new blood.

“Those people who brought us the peace process – we owe all of them a real debt of gratitude,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“But for politics to move beyond that, from a peace process to a delivery process, it needs a new generation to lead that.

I think some other parties could do well in taking that advice.
I don’t think it’s ordinary or normal in any other part of the world where a political leader would be there for 33 years. Gerry Adams is the leader of Sinn Féin as long as I am on this earth.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily good for politics, and I think we all need to move on beyond that.”

Ulster Assembly election 2016 Eastwood celebrates his Assembly election last May. Source: Niall Carson/PA

Abortion

Despite a new generation seeking social and economic progress, the North is still dominated by strong conservative forces.

In February the SDLP voted against an Alliance motion that would have allowed for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape, calling for greater consultation.

Eastwood insists the Bill was “tacked on at the end of a crime bill” and they received legal advice it would not have stood up before courts.

“We need to move forward cautiously and properly. but I think people in the North are very reluctant to see an extension of the 1967 [Abortion] Act in Britain to the North.”

Ireland Gay Marriage Marriage equality campaigners in Dublin last year. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Marriage equality

The Derry man points at his record in proposing a same-sex marriage Bill in the North, which he says is crucial to attracting international attention.

“I proposed the first motion in the Northern Ireland assembly for same-sex marriage that actually got a majority of support,” he said.

“But then the DUP came in and used their veto to stop that happening.

One of the things I said is that companies like Apple and Google want to invest in places that have progressive politics around gay rights.
And the idea that we would be closing the door to them – but more importantly what we are saying to many of our citizens in Northern Ireland is that they’re less equal than others.

“That’s not the place where I want to be. I’m from a party that’s born out of the civil rights movement.

“I think one of the great last issues of civil rights is gay rights, and I think we need to be very much to the forefront is ensuring that Northern Ireland is seen very differently around the world.

“The issue of discriminating against our gay, lesbian, transsexual brothers and sisters is one that needs to be stopped and stopped immediately.

And the DUP need to get out of the way in terms of the advance towards proper equality for everybody.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Austerity cuts

Sinn Féin jointly sponsored the latest same-sex marriage bill. But they too, Eastwood says, are a conservative force north of the border when it comes to other policies.

“Of course Sinn Féin are two different political parties depending on what side of the border you are,” he said.

In the south they’re a left-wing anti-austerity party. In the North they’re implementing austerity cuts whilst blaming somebody else for them.

“In the North they gave away power over our most vulnerable people’s benefits to a British Tory party in London. So I’m not sure they are an all-Ireland party, I think they’re two different parties across the island.”

Ulster Assembly election 2016 Behind you: Eastwood behind Martin McGuinness, after both were elected to the Northern Assembly in Foyle. Source: Niall Carson/PA

Fianna Fáil merger

Back in the Celtic Tiger years, there was talk of a merger between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil. Not any more, though. Both parties cut somewhat traduced figures.

In 1998 the SDLP won the most votes of any party in the North. It’s now the fourth-largest party, and since 2001 has been trailing their nationalist counterparts in Sinn Féin.

While it still has three MPs at Westminster, the SDLP has just 12 MLAs to Sinn Féin’s 28 and the DUP’s 38.

But given its track record in peace-building, and the political rivalry between Sinn Féin and other parties in the Republic, it nevertheless commands influence in Dublin.

The SDLP wants to transform the North-South relationship to a point where a referendum on unity would actually be feasible down the line. (Eastwood has described talk of a border poll now as “silly”.)

ULSTER Politics_Ireland Former SDLP leader Mark Durkan (left) and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dublin in 2005. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Dublin relationships

He lauds the painstaking work undertaken by the Scottish National Party over many years in drawing up policies for independence, even if they lost the 2014 referendum to break the link with London.

“We have relationships with all the parties in the south, it’s important that we keep those relationships,” the 33-year-old father of one said.

“It allows us to work with them when they’re in government.

We have very close relationships with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and with the Irish Labour Party, and it’s very important for us to maintain that.
I suppose we don’t know who is going to be in government [in Dublin], and it’s important that people of the North are heard right at the heart of government.

“The idea that we would fight elections against any of those parties would limit our options for influencing the Irish government.”

Apart from Sinn Féin, of course. Eastwood says Labour, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can form Governments without dealing with Adams and company, but they “don’t have much choice” due to the nature of the Assembly system.

“Parties down here do have a choice… in terms of how they act and react to modern-day politics,” he said.

“A lot of political parties down here would see that Sinn Féin haven’t quite made the full evolution into a normal political party, but that’s a question for others to answer.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Brexit

Brexit has again brought the North back on to the political radar in Dublin, and to a lesser extent London and Brussels.

The SDLP, with other parties, have won permission in the High Court in Belfast to challenge Brexit on the basis that the Belfast Agreement trumps the crown prerogative, which British prime minister Theresa May will use to trigger Article 50 in early 2017.

Eastwood says Brexit would be a “disaster”, and said it would be impossible to have a hard border, unless it’s situation in Britain’s airports and customs ports.

It’s nevertheless a situation that has allowed the SDLP to strike common cause with political parties in Dublin on behalf of the majority of the North’s population that voted to remain in the EU.

Ulster Assembly election 2016 campaign Eastwood voting with his wife Rachel and daughter Rosa in May. Source: Niall Carson/PA

Project Eagle

Having spoken at the Fianna Fáil think-in in Carlow this year, Eastwood has also joined Brendan Howlin and the Labour Party party in calling for a cross-border inquiry into Nama’s controversial sale of its Project Eagle loanbook.

“We’ve done some work with Labour, as well Fianna Fáil and others on this,” he said.

“It’s important that a cross-border inquiry happens, because a dark cloud is hanging over our political process now. There are very serious allegations that the political process [in the North] has been corrupted.

There are still far too many dark places that need light shone into them.

The DUP are very clear in their opposition to any cross-border inquiry. I don’t think that’s good enough. They the party who have most questions to answer, Sinn Féin do as well…

“If I was leading the DUP I would want that out in the open, I would want that dark cloud to be taken off my party.”

Videos by Nicky Ryan

Read: Explainer: Why are politicians talking about a ‘border poll’ now?

Read: Northern Ireland rejects same sex marriage for third time in 18 months

Read: Nama says it acted in the “interest of the Irish taxpayers” at all times during Project Eagle sale

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