He also said that his party locally had already proven itslef capable of confounding the critics in Derry and was capable of returning all three SDLP candidates for Derry in the upcoming Assembly election in the five-seater Foyle constituency.
The Foyle MP was speaking as he set put his party’s stall in the run up to the May 5th election at an SDLP Conference at the Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy, County Derry on Friday.
Mr Eastwood opened by stating that people “finally, finally feel that the weight of the pandemic is lifting off our shoulders” with real hope” on the horizon.
However dark clouds continue to hang over people with the Executive collapsed by the DUP just as people are facing a cost of living crisis, he warned.
“It seems the way of world these days is that just when we slowly emerge from one crisis – we quickly fall into another.
“For months now we have been talking about a ‘cost of living crisis’. But the truth is, it is far worse than just a crisis – it’s now an emergency.
“There isn’t a family that hasn’t been hit again and again by fuel, food and energy bills that are out of control.
“This is not just a crisis facing the most vulnerable, though they feel it most acutely. Working people the length and breadth of these islands are sleeping in cold homes, cutting back on grocery shopping, making personal sacrifices so that their children can eat.
“Tackling emergencies like this is exactly what our politics should be about – it’s what it needs to be about. Someone we knew very well said it best - you can’t eat a flag. And we should know by now that hot tempers at Stormont don’t heat a single home. But the truth is, our politics hasn’t responded, it hasn’t acted and it has failed people again. And I for one am deeply ashamed. Because it should shame every political leader that families have been so badly let down.”
Mr Eastwood said this shame should be keenly felt by DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson as he has refused to nominate a First Minister “to deal with this emergency and release the £300 million that Stormont is sitting on”.
“But while it is right for every politician to feel shame about the Executive’s failure - the mantra ‘they are all the same’ simply isn’t true,” he added, while praising fellow Derryman and party colleague, SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan who, he said, “has put in an incredible amount of work to find a solution, draft emergency legislation, and find a way to unlock that £300 million to get money to every household”.
“When others were happy to wave their hands in despair, Mark went to work. He did what the SDLP do - he did his job and put people first,” her contended, adding:
“We are deeply disappointed that Stormont’s Speaker Alex Maskey has blocked this emergency legislation – but we are determined to find another way. If this can’t be done in Stormont, we need to find a way in Westminster.
“Myself and Claire Hanna have already been engaged with legal services to see if we can immediately amend existing legislation to unlock this money.,, the Secretary of State also needs to make himself useful and make a direct intervention to allow Ministers to access and spend this £300m. We will work every day to make this happen.
“But I can make this guarantee - if this is still not sorted by May – the very first priority of every single SDLP MLA elected, on day one of a new mandate, will be to get this money into people’s pockets.”
Turning to Ukraine, Mr Eastwood said everyone had a moral responsibility to make sure that the people of the country do not stand alone.
“I am proud that truck loads of humanitarian aid have made their way from Northern Ireland to the Ukrainian border in recent weeks.”
The SDLP leader then turned to his predecessor, Nobel Peace Laureate John Hume and his wife Pat and other founding figures including East Derry’s John Dallat who have passed away over recent years.
“For our own party, this is the first time we have come together since we lost Seamus, Ivan and Austin, John Dallat and John and Pat Hume. What a legacy they have left and what an inheritance these islands enjoy because of the lives they led. Whatever age you are, whatever background you are from - we all now live in the Ireland that John Hume imagined. A country at peace and free to decide its own destiny.
“And in this room, we all know he would never have been able to forge that future without the constant advice, support and love from Pat. Nothing spoke more powerfully of the deep dignity in which John and Pat lived their lives than the dignity in which the Hume family marked their death. There is barely a day that goes by that I don’t think about them both. This party will always follow their lead, we will always remember them and Ireland will be proud of them for ever, ever more.”
Mr Eastwood praised the NHS and community response to the pandemic as he called for a pay rise for health professionals and spoke of the health crisis facing the north.
He also warned that political debates “are distant and detached from the real issues - so distant in fact that they are basically deaf to the real priorities of people”.
“One quarter of this population is stuck on a hospital waiting list. Every single waiting time target for cancer patients has been missed. Energy bills have shot up £700 in the space of the last year.
Petrol and Diesel Price are up 60%.
“Wages are low, prices are high and we are still exporting far, far too many of our greatest assets – our young people. These are the problems people are facing, these are the problems our government should be focusing on.”
He claimed however that the DUP ‘doesn’t care’. “They collapsed the Executive because they saw their own support collapsing. A desperation tactic - nothing more.
“This needs to be said and it needs to be heard. The DUP are fully to blame – the DUP are fully at fault. They forced through a hard Brexit against the democratic wishes of people here. They got their hard Brexit - and in the process helped remove Theresa May and install Boris Johnson. And now - after all that – after getting the Brexit they said they wanted – they can’t deal with the damage of their own actions. And let’s be very clear - their latest tantrum won’t work either. As long as a hard Brexit is imposed, the protocol is here to stay. It is after all the protocol signed, sealed, and delivered by the DUP’s supposed allies in the Tory party. In fairness though, the DUP is no stranger to betrayal from the British Government – the only surprise is that they somehow keep being surprised when the Tories sell them down the river...
“Now it’s fair to say the DUP wouldn’t be quick to seek my advice, never mind actually listen to it. But this is my speech - so I’m going to give them some advice anyway. So here it is.
“Maybe, just maybe – instead of running after Tory Prime Ministers - the DUP and unionism would be far better served if they sat down with the rest of us – their neighbours – and we all tried to do the very best by all of our people.
“If we keep doing things the same way, we can never hope to break the cycle of crisis and collapse that now defines Stormont. And while I have been very clear that the DUP are solely to blame for the last few months, Sinn Fein can’t escape from their responsibility for the failures of the last 15 years. People are fair minded, but they won’t be fooled. They haven’t forgotten that not so long ago they collapsed our government for three years.”
He claimed that the DUP and Sinn Fein have a joint record for the last 15 years – ‘and all it amounts to is a joint record of either bad government or no government’.
Mr Eastwood went on to heap praise on Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon as a ‘one woman delivery machine’ and Health Minister Robin Swann, stating: “He has been the right man at the right time – and it is only right that we give credit where credit is due.”
Turning to reconciliation and Irish unity he added; “They show what is possible when politicians just get on with the job. And more than ever that’s what this community needs and it’s what the public wants. Because whether it’s 100 years ago or right now, the choice for people on this island remains the very same. We can choose to retreat from each other or we can choose again to work, live and govern together.
“I think it’s really important to make this point. There are some commentators who – just as they did when Stormont was collapsed 5 years ago – give off the impression that they are fairly relaxed at the idea of failed power-sharing institutions. Their narrow theory seems to think that it would be ultimately worse for unionism than for those of us who want to bring about constitutional change. Not only do I think that kind of scorched earth politics would be a complete failure of our people - I also think it would be massive strategic mistake.
“Collapsed institutions and collapsed relationships in the North are a major blockade on the road to a New Ireland. It would do nothing to serve the needs of people right here and right now. And it would do nothing to convince those that need convincing that ultimately all powers and decisions should be made here in Ireland - not in Westminster.
“For the SDLP - self-government at Stormont is a massive part in the journey to the self-determination of choosing a new future in a new Ireland. Reaching that New Ireland means getting on with the job and it means making government in this corner of our country work.”
There was also praise for all the candidates across the north standing for the SDLP, including its candidates in the north west.
“This is by far the best team of SDLP candidates fighting an election since the founding generation of our party inspired a wave of change that swept away this state’s status quo.
“Cara Hunter in East Derry who - when she is not campaigning on mental health and climate change - is busy cold-water swimming to raise money for Women’s Aid.
“And you wouldn’t expect me to stand here without saying it - we have confounded the critics and the commentators in Derry before. I absolutely believe that we can do it again and bring home three outstanding MLAs in Sinead McLaughlin, Mark H Durkan and Brian Tierney.
“All of our brilliant candidates offer change and they offer everyone a new choice.”