SDLP leader Colum Eastwood parked his anti-Brexit battle bus on the border this week as he launched his bid to reclaim ‘John Hume’s seat’ on a strongly pro-European ticket in the upcoming European elections.
Mr. Eastwood believes he is in pole-position to capitalise on the 55.8 per cent ‘remain’ majority recorded in the North in the 2016 referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.
“This is our opportunity to have a ‘People’s Vote’ because our vote in the referendum three years ago has been totally ignored,” said Mr. Eastwood.
The SDLP candidate was joined by elected representatives from his own party as well as senior Fianna Fáil figures, including T.D. and agriculture spokesman Charlie McConalogue, as he vowed to make this election a campaign against Brexit.
His battle bus, which was was parked directly on the border at Elagh/Coshquin on Wednesday, bears the slogan ‘Europe sends us €500 million year: Take back control of your future’ in a clear nod to Tory Brexiteer Boris Johnson’s infamous and discredited ‘We send the EU £350,000,000 a week: Let’s fund our NHS instead’.
The SDLP leader said this campaign will address some of the misrepresentations that were aired during the UK referendum debate in 2016.
The party has set its sights on the third European seat for the North, which the UUP’s Jim Nicholson took on unionist transfers despite only narrowly out-polling the SDLP’s Alex Attwood on first preferences in 2014.
And despite competition from other pro-EU candidates like former Women’s Coalition Independent Jane Morrice, the Green Party’s Claire Bailey and Naomi Long of an insurgent Alliance Party which won 11.5 per cent of the first preference poll in last week’s local government elections across the North,
Mr. Eastwood insists he is the only ‘remainer’ who can beat pro-Brexit UUP candidate Danny Kennedy on May 23.
“We need to send a very clear message and send two ‘remainers’ back instead of two ‘leavers’. That’s the opportunity that we have and we are in pole position to take that third seat,” he said.
“We are fewer than 2,000 votes from taking this seat and that means we need people to lend us their vote. People who traditionally vote for other parties.
“We are well ahead of Alliance. We are in fourth position. We need to get to third. I think we can do it because I think people want to send a clear message. That they are against Brexit. They want to remain in the EU and they definitely want to stop a hard border in Ireland,” he said.
Mr. Eastwood, who believes he can retake a seat that was held by John Hume from the establishment of the European Parliament as an elected legislature in 1979 until 2004, said his decision to launch his campaign where the Galliagh townlands meld into Birdstown on the banks of the Skeoge was no coincidence.
“This is the border we want to keep invisible. It’s invisible now. We want people to be able to continue to move freely across it.
“We want people to be able to trade freely across it. We want an open society. We don’t want Brexit. We want to stop it. I think we can if we send a clear message. The worst thing that can happen would be if we send two ‘leavers’ back to the European Parliament,” he said.
Mr. Eastwood, if he polls well against Mr. Kennedy and Ms. Long, is well-placed to challenge for the final seat with the help of transfers from other pro-EU candidates, including the Alliance leader.
While accepting the EU is not perfect he is unapologetic about the fact that he will be running this campaign as a staunch believer in the European project.
“We are very pro-European. We can talk all day about some of the things that need to change.
“Like any other democratic institution in the world there are things that could change but this is about countries coming together to pool their resources, to pool their sovereignty to work together to have economic progress, to have open societies, to have access to all the opportunities we’ve had.
“We get €500million at least a year, into Northern Ireland from the European Union. That’s a pretty positive thing. I don’t want to lose that.
“I want us to defend that and that’s what this campaign is all about,” said the SDLP candidate.
SDLP Euro candidate, Colum Eastwood, with his wife Rachel, right, and Nichola Mallon, deputy leader, and party members at his campaign launch.