'We can build a better life for people in a New Ireland' - Colum Eastwood tells SDLP conference

The only alternative to reform of Northern Ireland’s currently paralysed institutions will be a new settlement, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood has warned as he set out his party’s vision for a unified Ireland.

Speaking as he addressed the SDLP’s annual conference in St Columb’s Hall in Derry on Saturday, Mr Eastwood was scathing of the DUP for its boycott of the NI Executive in a time of crisis and said reforms were vital including ending ‘the poisonous politics of veto’.

Derry’s MP opened the conference by referencing the landslide vote at Westminster (515 votes to 29) endorsing the new Windsor framework between the European Union and the British Government.

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“And yet despite that overwhelming vote, the DUP are still digging their heals in,” he said. “On Thursday, the Secretary of State said that the DUP had failed to come to terms with the significance of that massive majority in favour of the Windsor Framework. He is right - but it also points to a much deeper reality and a more fundamental point.

Party leader Colum Eastwood MP pictured at the SDLP annual Conference, on Saturday morning, in St Columb’s Hall. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2312GS – 37Party leader Colum Eastwood MP pictured at the SDLP annual Conference, on Saturday morning, in St Columb’s Hall. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2312GS – 37
Party leader Colum Eastwood MP pictured at the SDLP annual Conference, on Saturday morning, in St Columb’s Hall. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2312GS – 37

“Because 25 years on, the truth is that the DUP still haven’t come to terms with the Good Friday Agreement. They still haven't come to terms with the fact that in a negotiation you don’t get everything your own way.

“The negotiation is over, the deal is done. It’s now decision time for the DUP. And the choice now isn’t really about a protocol or a framework. It’s about whether the DUP are prepared to share power with their neighbours.

"So Jeffrey Donaldson and his party finally need to hear the message that the majority of people here have been roaring at them for the best part of a year. After this week, the message they need to hear is very, very simple. The DUP need to get back to work or get out of the way.

“They have run out of excuses, they have run out of road and the public ran out of patience with them a long, long time ago.”

Colum Eastwood MP, party leader, and Claire Hanna MP at the SDLP annual Conference, on Saturday morning, in St Columb’s Hall. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2312GS – 34Colum Eastwood MP, party leader, and Claire Hanna MP at the SDLP annual Conference, on Saturday morning, in St Columb’s Hall. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2312GS – 34
Colum Eastwood MP, party leader, and Claire Hanna MP at the SDLP annual Conference, on Saturday morning, in St Columb’s Hall. Photo: George Sweeney. DER2312GS – 34

Mr Eastwood also delivered this warning the British government: “Keep your hands off the principle of consent. It cannot be altered to buy off hardline unionism. We won’t allow it.”

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The ‘dominance of division, deadlock and intransigence’ has a much broader impact than an empty building at Stormont, delegates were told as Mr Eastwood referenced renewed hope in the run up to 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

“It corrodes and corrupts our democratic institutions. It erodes and erases faith in the value of public service. It squanders the opportunity and the hope of the moment 25 years ago when we agreed that our people and our society deserved so much better.

“But if we know anything in this place it is that people can change things. I was a teenager who felt the euphoria that ran across our community when the people of Ireland voted to break free from the oppression of violence. After so many years of hurt, people finally embraced the optimism of hope. It was a real revolution.

“I feel the hope of that time again. I believe we have it in our power to lead a new revolution in Irish politics.”

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Speaking about his own party’s legacy Mr Eastwood said the SDLP’s greatest achievement ‘was bringing an end to the Anglo-Irish conflict and removing the boot of violence from the necks of our community’.

“But the peace we helped to secure is imperfect because it has failed to permanently root out paramilitary violence,” he warned.

“Whether it’s loyalist criminality that occupies and oppresses working class communities or dissident republicans blindly ignoring the will of our people who want to live in peace. We all have a responsibility to resist their influence. That obligation was brought into sharp focus last month following the brutal attack on DCI John Caldwell in Omagh.

“This is a moment to rededicate ourselves to the primacy of peace and resistance against violence. It is a moment for us all, one community and one people, to say we are never going back to this - not in our name.”

On the impact of Brexit, Mr Eastwood said people here had been ‘buffeted by a torrent of change over the last number of years that people here did not vote for and have had little hand in shaping’.

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But, he added, the conversations are growing louder around a new way and a new future.

"People across this island are now speaking openly about change. It fills every corner of our lives from family dinner tables to work canteens, from pubs to football pitches. We all now know that the future of our island is not fixed. The shape of the society that we can become is not yet set.

“The opportunity we have, all of us who share this island is to work together. To spill our sweat in our substantial common interests and to imagine a new future together. That future cannot be guided by a blind obsession with righting ancient wrongs. It must be about reconciling our people, creating opportunity and prosperity for this and future generations.

“Conference, reconciliation has to begin with reconciling yourself with the truth. If we want to restore our place on the international stage, If we want to rejoin the community of nations and get back home to the EU then it can only be done in a New Ireland.

"Our passionate belief in the reunification of this island is motivated by an unshakable conviction that by every measurable outcome we can build a better health service. We can build a better education system. We can build a better economy and a better life for people as part of a New Ireland.”

“With more than half a million people currently waiting for hospital appointments, it is painfully obvious that what we have is no longer working well enough. It should not be an accepted law of northern politics that people who are unwell in our community have to wait longer than anyone else for treatment. That is why our ambition and aspiration should be to construct an all-Ireland health service, free at the point of delivery. Taking the best principles of healthcare in the North but fundamentally transforming service delivery as part of an all island care network. The obvious truth is that political leaders have prevaricated and delayed on health service transformation for far too long.

"The harder truth is that transformation within the confines of the current settlement in Northern Ireland alone is always going to be a losing game.

“The opportunity of a new Ireland is fundamental transformation that is bigger and broader than shifting a limited resources around to serve a small population. Conference, the integration of two health systems will be one of the most significant challenges our movement faces. It will require the best minds and the combined effort of the machinery of government across our island. And it will still require difficult decisions - there is no escape from that reality and we should all be prepared to face up to it.

“But the opportunity - to put an end to the collapse of our health service. To provide people timely access to life saving care. And to pay front line staff a wage that provides dignity for their vocation is one of the biggest prizes we can hope to achieve. There is nothing worth fighting for more.”

Mr Eastwood said that, by contrast, at present ‘we live with a new form of direct rule through Tory budgets set by Westminster Ministers with no recourse to the people of the North’.

“Conference, we will not live with that anymore,” he added. “The great traditions that share this land must be reflected in it’s governance. The road that the wreckers have set us on can lead to one of two new destinations: Lasting reform of the Assembly to ensure that our people can work together in their common interests or a new shared British/Irish stewardship of the North. There is no other way.”

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In the more immediate term, Mr Eastwood set out his party’s stall for reform including proposing that the titles of the First Ministers would be made equal to reflect their equal standing in government, a return to co-nomination of the heads of government and requiring a weighted majority vote for their election, reducing the number of votes subject to one party veto and ending ‘the abuse of the petition of concern to deny people their rights’.

He also mooted a new weighted majority vote to appoint the new Speaker and removing ‘ the poisonous politics of veto from the beginning of every mandate’.

He warned however if reform is not possible then the only alternative is a new settlement that retains power with the Irish and British traditions that share this island.

“Sharing power is no optional extra in our settlement – it is the engine of our agreement. And if political parties will not work together, then there must be a new model of shared stewardship between the British and Irish governments. That is the only way to accommodate the identities, ambitions and aspirations of our people.

“While our politics may be stuck in the present, we will not allow it to slip back to the past. One tradition rule is gone and it is never, ever coming back.

This place only works when nationalism and unionism works together. It’s time to get back to that.”

In terms of the future he said a new reunified Ireland had the potential to fix and transform broken health services and tackle the scourge of homelessness.

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“Let us build a nation that is proud to provide for the most vulnerable.

“Let us build an Ireland that gives power and place to the marginalised and the dispossessed.

“An Ireland that stands with the public sector workers who give it shape and structure.

“An Ireland that believes, as a founding principle, in the dignity of a fair wage for everyone.”