Last weekend’s one day SDLP conference at St Columb’s Hall in Derry saw the party set out its stall for the Assembly elections which will take place in May.
Party political representatives and members from across the North gathered in the heart of the city centre to witness the first keynote conference speech delivered by Colum Eastwood as SDLP leader.
Under the overall theme of ‘Build a Better Future’ the day was characterised by a series of panel discussions covering a wide range of topics including, crime, the economy, Irish reunification, how to deal with the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ and outlining the SDLP’s desire to see the UK stay within the European Union in the face of the forthcoming referendum on the issue.
Undoubtedly the choosing of Derry for the conference was a deliberate act as the Stormont election will see a political showdown between the SDLP and Sinn Fein in Foyle to see which shade of nationalism, if any, can assume political supremacy in the Foyle constituency. And, this was a theme that was heavily alluded to within Mr Eastwood’s speech.
In his speech Colum Eastwood said: “I am happy to report conference, this is a party which feels good about itself again.
“I didn’t get into politics to sit on powerless committees or keep things as they are. I got into politics to make a difference.
“I am aware and privileged that I lead this great party which John Hume and Seamus Mallon shaped. I am conscious in this hall, in this city of Derry, that I have the privilege of following them. We’ve been left with a powerful legacy.
“I was a teenager who felt the euphoria which ran across our community when the people of Ireland chose to break free from the chains of violence. After so many years of hardship and hurt, people openly embraced the proper innocence of hope. I saw that hoe and I joined the SDLP.”
Addressing the issue of the upcoming Stormont election in May, Mr Eastwood said: “In the pursuit of peace, the national interest asked that we loan others some of our vote. But it is only manners to let them know that those days are now gone. Those days are now over. Let it be known conference, here tonight, from this moment on, the SDLP is calling in that loan!
“And while we are on the subject of votes. The Joint First Minister Martin McGuinness has announced that he is coming back to Derry in the expectation that he will be gifted three seats. Well Martin should take a look and see what happened recently in Donegal. Three into two won’t go. And in a few short weeks, Derry will tell them the same. Derry will tell them the same because the same verdict is forming and is being felt in Fermanagh and Tyrone, in Armagh, in Antrim and in Down.
The issue of how to deal with the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ was widely discussed at the SDLP conferenceA fractured Ireland will always be an Ireland in waiting. But, for Ireland to be reunited, Northern Ireland has to work
“The North needs a different government. It needs a new alternative, a new alternative that can break free from what Stormont has become. Stormont must do more than simply exist.”
The party leader gave what he described as “concrete assurances” on the A5 and A6 road infrastructure and the expansion of Magee saying that the SDLP will make sure that funding is secured in the next programme for government after the next election.
In addressing the issue of Irish reunification he said: “A fractured Ireland will always be an Ireland in waiting. But, for Ireland to be reunited, Northern Ireland has to work. This is the essence of our progressive nationalism.
“In marking 1916, we must also redouble our efforts to reconcile with the Unionist people of this island. The SDLP has never and will never deny or dilute the complex mix of identities which contribute to the richness of Ireland.
“Conference, the late great Seamus Heaney once said that the voice of sanity is getting hoarse.But, our voice is getting stronger by the day. The SDLP is back in the conversation. Politics always offers a choice. But you need to back that choice, you need to vote for it. Frustration isn’t cured by staying at home.
“Vote for change on May 5, vote for the SDLP.”
In opening the SDLP conference on Saturday, the party’s MP for Foyle, Mark Durkan said it was an opportunity to hear and reflect upon ideas from within the SDLP as well as those from other sectors.
Mr Durkan said that Derry had set the example of power sharing within its local authority many years ago-something which followed later in other places.
Mr Durkan said: “We have now had two terms at Stormont since the restoration of devolution in 2007. The ‘big two parties’ have been happy to exclude everyone else from what is going on. Do we really have a strong sense of devolution here? Can we tell Scotland and Wales that we have done more than them? We are letting ourselves down if we let Sinn Fein and the DUP take devolution forward.
“We know there is disillusionment with Stormont and there is nobody more frustrated than us. The only way out of it is to give a stronger mandate to the SDLP.”
The issue of how to deal with the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ was widely discussed at the SDLP conference.
In a week that saw a decision taken by the Department of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute the soldier responsible for the killing of 15-year-old Daniel Hegarty in Derry during Operation Motorman in 1972, a panel which included PSNI Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) Will Kerr addressed the issue.
“The longer it takes to get the political structure in place, the less there is a likelihood of a positive outcome. This is poisoning our relationship with communities. This is why the Chief Constable has said that institutionally this issue should be taken away from the PSNI and the key to the vault be handed over to someone else to manage it,” said Mr Kerr.
One of the people wounded on Bloody Sunday, Mickey Bridge, attended the conference and questioned ACC Will Kerr on the re-investigation by the PSNI into the killings on Bloody Sunday. Soldiers suspected of involvement in shootings on January 30, 1972 are expected to be interviewed by police on a voluntary basis this month.
Speaking in St Columb’s Hall, Mr Bridge said: “There is no justification for the PSNI to be sitting back six years after this investigation was announced having interviewed only one soldier and the rest are now to be interviewed at their own convenience in England. The responsibility for questioning these soldiers was previously delegated away to the Metropolitan police during the Saville Inquiry and now it;s happened again. It’s questionable to say the least. I feel it wouldn’t happen anywhere else in the world. Anywhere else they would have been brought into court and their immunity from prosecution removed.”
SDLP MLA, Alex Attwood who chaired this particular discussion also separately addressed the SDLP conference on the legacy of the past.
Calling on the British Government to disclose their draft legislation on mechanisms to deal with legacy issues he said: “Will victims be allowed to see this and have the opportunity to shape its contents. I am calling on the British Government to publish this legislation in full. And, the Irish Government needs to encourage them to do this. Victims and their families deserve no less.”
The MLA also called on the British Government to publish the various reports into collusion between state forces and loyalist paramilitaries compiled by Sir John Stevens. This he said, was vital if the process is to avoid becoming a “pre-cooked narrative” about what took place during the conflict.”
“They say they will share information with paramilitaries and the Historical Investigations Unit but not with the families. The families need to have the full story about what happened with collusion,” he said.
Derry based journalist and economist Paul Gosling in addressing the SDLP conference gave the party a plainly spoken analysis of the nature of the party’s political identity.
During a discussion labelled ‘Delivering Better Government for All’, Mr Gosling said that the SDLP needed to decide whether they were “the political wing of the Catholic Church or a party of progressive social democrats.”
“Looking to the future in Northern Ireland appears to be impossible because the past is the present and therefore how can the future be addressed.”
Referring to a book launched last week called ‘Beyond the Silence’ which looks at how women dealt with the direct impact of the ‘Troubles’ upon them, he said: “People need to know the real history of what happened from the people who went through it. I think we need to go back to Eames-Bradley. I need to know what the British Government did here in my name as an Englishman. Kincora needs to be properly investigated for example.”
During the discussion, the journalist said: “There is far too much that smells bad at Stormont. We need to be better on political transparency. We cannot have the situation where government contracts appear to be for sale. The current systems do not work. Northern Ireland fails on openness, honesty and transparency. We need to create a modern state, with modern political parties that have moved beyond sectarianism.”
Director of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences and a Professor of Politics at Ulster University, Dr Cathy Gormley Heenan attacked the lack of transparency which she believes Stormont delivers information to the public. Whilst she said that Stormont does place information online for public viewing she commented: “As a social scientist I cannot make head or tail of it.”
Professor Gormley Heenan said the SDLP should accept the challenge to address the issue of creating more transparency to engage more in the process of letting people know what actually goes on for example in joint ministerial meetings and within the North South Ministerial Council and the Irish British Council.
The SDLP’s only Minister on the Northern Ireland Executive told the conference that Derry was “synonymous with the civil rights movement” as well as having one of the best examples of built heritage in the country.
Mark H Durkan, referring to the venue for the conference said: “This splendid building is just one example of that.”
Honing in on the overall theme of the conference, which was ‘Build a Better Future’ he said his party was determined to tackle unemployment and the inadequacies within the health system.
“We witness despair on a daily basis in people young and old. The SDLP has a vision and that is to create a vibrant future for the young and dignity for the old.
“The SDLP continued to build bridges whilst others bombed our cities. We aim to build consensus and unite people. We are the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and we have continued to build on that,” he said.
The Minister also pledged to continuing to create social housing of “unprecedented quality” and to tackle the issue of dereliction across the North. He also highlighted that the money generated by his introduction of a carrier bag levy had been ploughed back into the economy in order to develop such projects.