Colum Eastwood has warned while the SDLP is committed to co-operation with the Ulster Unionist Party “our Irish Nationalism and your Unionism will not seamlessly fit any time soon”.
The Foyle assembly member made his remarks as the first serving SDLP leader to speak at an Ulster Unionist Party conference.
The parties have been working together on several issues since they formed an opposition at Stormont in May.
Speaking at the conference in the Ramada Hotel at Shaw’s Bridge on Saturday, Mr. Eastwood said it was “the beginning of something important”.
“Since the election there has been plenty of interest as to whether the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party will work together in opposition. The answer is simple - of course we will. We are already doing so.”
The SDLP leader said, however “the commitment to co-operation does not mean absolute unanimity or uniformity - and nor should it”.
“Let me state the obvious - we are different parties with different policies and different visions of the future,” he said. “Our Irish Nationalism and your Unionism will not seamlessly fit any time soon.
“However, this difference does not diminish our ability to pursue the commonality of our immediate cause. Both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists share the common ground of wanting to make Northern Ireland work. That’s a healthy common ground to hold for today and tomorrow. The constitutional change of the future will be the product of persuasion.”
During his address, Mr. Eastwood made this appeal to Mike Nesbitt’s party.
“We all need to renew our thinking as to what political shape Britain and Ireland will take in this new century. My appeal is this – try to convince us of your vision for the future and we’ll try to convince you of ours,” said Mr. Eastwood.
Our Irish Nationalism and your Unionism will not seamlessly fit any time soon.SDLP leader Colum Eastwood at the Ulster Unionist conference
“Let it be a discussion based on hard facts and hard truths. Most of all let it be creative - and then in time let the people decide.”
Mr. Eastwood criticised both the DUP and Sinn Fein who he claimed “have no such ambition or aspiration for our people or this place”.
“They never had. They believe the symbolism of their coalition suffices, and offer nothing more. They’re all guff and no governance. Even with 55 press officers, 16 special advisers and their new press secretary they struggle to fabricate the illusion of progress,” said Mr. Eastwood.
The SDLP leader said “we must break up and break down that cosy establishment”.
“We do that by building trust and credibility across this society. We do it by embracing the politics of partnership and cooperation. Let’s be honest - we are not there yet. We have work to do and that work goes on. Our success can permanently transform the politics of this place - old battles of identity will be replaced by a new battle of ideas,” said Mr.Eastwood, adding: “For me, for the SDLP, that’s work that’s well worthwhile.”