Speech by the Party Leader Colum Eastwood at event to unveil new spokespeople team
Thank you and welcome.
I’m delighted to be here in the heart of West Belfast.
I’m particularly delighted to be here to launch the new team of spokespersons for the SDLP.
This is the team of women and men who will be the embodiment of the new SDLP.
From now until May’s election and beyond, all of us will be the new voices and faces on your T.V. screens and on your radio stations.
More importantly, we will be the new voices and faces in your communities and on your doorsteps.
Together, we will deliver a new message which moves beyond simply congratulating ourselves for ceasing to kill and injure one another.
Together, we will deliver new ideas which will bring the change that the responsibility of government demands.
Together we will deliver our new alternative.
There are very few certainties in politics but there is now one truth that is becoming clearer and clearer, one truth that is becoming more and more certain –
Northern Ireland needs a new alternative.
The reality of West Belfast
It is not hard to guess why. We are here in West Belfast for a reason. This is a constituency which has suffered for too long. Those who live here have borne too much.
This is a place that needs a new alternative. The people who live here need a new alternative.
Politics is a complex business but sometimes the raw statistics of a political circumstance tell a simple story. Look to the facts.
West Belfast has the North’s lowest life expectancy rate. Put very simply, if you’re born here and live here, you’re likely to die younger.
It has the North’s second highest claimant rate. Because of their political circumstance, people here are a lot less likely to have the dignity and security of a job.
39% of children in West Belfast live in poverty. 38% of adults have no qualifications.
Gross weekly pay in West Belfast is £301.30. Travel across the Lagan to East Belfast and it’s £454.70.
Of all jobs promoted by the government, only 1.77% of these end up here.
There were 8453 recorded incidents of crime in West Belfast in 2013/14.
There are 1,446 people listed as homeless.
Peace is not simply the absence of war. The human lives behind each and every one of these statistics have not felt the dividend that peace promised.
West Belfast, like constituencies and areas across the North, is full of strong, decent people who have borne the burdens of these statistics for far too long.
I am not claiming that the answers to these statistics, the answers to these inequalities, are easy or straight forward. Many of them are rooted in our political and social history and will take time to tackle.
However, people here do have the right to expect that proper politics will intervene, that proper politics will look to find solutions to the economic and social inequalities which continue to hold this community back. It has not.
People have a right to expect better.
Coming toward an election, they also have a right to ask better of their political representatives.
Sinn Fein has now held the reins of power in Stormont for 9 years. They are the first Nationalist party since partition to hold genuine power in the North of Ireland for such an extended period of time.
Yet places like West Belfast show that they have done very little with that power. We have the same evidence in Derry. We have the same evidence across the North.
We have a right to expect better.
As we move toward the May elections there is an identifiable change in our politics.
People are now asking that government here is held accountable for its record.
They are asking that May’s election be a referendum on that record.
Those who run the government cannot credibly ask for a ‘Fresh Start’ after 9 full years in office. The very idea is ridiculous and wouldn’t be credible anywhere else. It isn’t credible here.
What our two First Ministers are really asking for is more of the same.
Stability is no longer enough. Historic handshakes are no longer enough. Our Joint First Ministers being able to hold civil conversation is no longer enough.
We have a right to expect better.
Running for Government
We in the SDLP have a question to answer here. In the past I accept that we have been cautious in answering it.
As the architects and builders of the institutions in all 3 Strands of the Agreement, we have found ourselves reluctant to leave the responsibilities of government solely to the parties who were at best lukewarm, and at worst actually opposed, to their establishment.
That was a natural reluctance. It was a reluctance to give the keys of the house to those who had very little part to play in laying that house’s foundation, never mind in actually building it, brick by brick.
For the good of our politics we must now break free from that past reluctance.
There has to come a time when we hold confidence that the institutions are solid enough to hold their own. There has to come a time when we believe the institutions are solid enough to allow proper politics to prosper.
That moment has now come.
Concerns over political stability can no longer be used to impede the logic for the establishment of an official opposition. Equally, the logic of an official opposition can never be used to impede the principle of cross-community power-sharing.
So, let me be clear. The SDLP believes that this should be the last assembly mandate in which there will be no opposition at Stormont.
But every election offers a choice. We do not concede an election before it has been fought.
So, let me be equally clear. The SDLP are running for government.
Ending the reality of frustration
The North needs a different government. It needs a new alternative
A new alternative which can break free from what Stormont has become.
A new alternative; needed because the devolved government here has failed to live up to the hopes of our people. This is true of the Unionist and Nationalist peoples alike.
There is no segregation in our disappointment. We are all united by it.
In the course of writing this speech I was casting around, searching for an image which would define that terrible sense of failure and frustration that has come to personify our politics.
I didn’t come across an image but I did come across the something which I think gives better translation.
A couple of weeks ago, the Irish Times had a section in its weekend review on the emerging generation of young people in the North.
One account, which stood out for me, came from an 18 year old politics student, James King, from Portadown.
I want to read to you some of the things he said. He began,
“I’m definitely planning to move away from Northern Ireland. I don’t want to stay here. My plan is to study politics at Aberdeen University, in Scotland. I want the new experience of moving away, seeing new cities, meeting new people. This is such a small place.”
“I am interested in the politics here – I’ve enjoyed getting a better insight into how the country is run – but with knowledge comes frustration: the politicians are so caught up in arguments that it’s hard to see what the real issues are. It’s like one step forward, two steps back.”
“For me to even consider coming back after Uni would depend on whether Northern Ireland has changed politically, and it’s hard to see that happening, the way things are now.”
“I feel disconnected: this sense of despair, a feeling of helplessness. It’s like there’s nothing you can do about it.”
James’s story, his voice, his frustration, his perception of Stormont is not an image. It is a reality. It is his reality.
It is a reality he shares with too many other young people.
He, along with around another 24,000 of our young people have been leaving the Northern Ireland each and every year. These young people are our greatest resource yet we continue to stand idly by, we continue to allow their exodus.
And you certainly don't need to read the Irish Times to understand the problem, if you have children or grandchildren in their twenties or thirties, the chances are some or all of them have been forced to leave in the search for work.
And if your children are teenagers, the chances are, like James, that sooner or later they'll be forced to leave.
The SDLP is running for Government to end that reality of frustration. We are running for Government because the enduring hope of politics is that it always offers a different choice, it always offers a different road.
Things can be different. They can be different for James King. They can be different for this generation.
I can say this with confidence because when I was an 18 year old politics student my reality was so much different.
I was 18 when the capacity of high politics showed itself capable of resolving one of the world’s oldest conflicts.
Politics showed itself to be a much more powerful weapon than violence could ever hope to be.
I was an 18 year old politics student who felt the tangible hope and euphoria which ran across my community when the Agreement was adopted by the people of Ireland. After so many years of hardship and hurt, people openly embraced the proper innocence of hope.
I saw that hope, I believed in it, and I joined the SDLP.
That was a time which knew what proper politics could achieve.
Expectations were raised and we all had hope for what our peace could create.
We also now unfortunately know the cynicism that has been cultivated since.
But therein lies the challenge, to return to a politics where people can expect once more. It is a challenge to return to a place where people can expect political representatives to deliver progressive change.
It is not too much to ask.
New team of spokespersons
This new generation of SDLP spokespersons offers a return to that hope.
Much has been made of the new age demographic in the SDLP, not least my own. But we are not asking people to return to this new SDLP because of our age.
We are asking people to return to the SDLP because the new generation means a new attitude to government. This group of men and woman are hungry to shape a new North, we are not just comfortable in maintaining the plateau of ambition which characterises today’s status quo.
This new generation of SDLP politician understands that for Ireland to be reunited in the future, Northern Ireland has to work now.
That’s the heart of Progressive Nationalism, a message I will expand on in a speech tonight in Crossmaglen.
Today is also the start of a big conversation with the public.
All of my new team will now go out and meet those with a stake, an interest and a love for this society. If you have an interest in shaping a new alternative, we’re interested in hearing from you.
We’ll be asking you to contribute to our manifesto which we will unveil at our Party conference in March. In that manifesto, we will set out clear pledges on the economy, for young workers, on health, on education and on crime.
These pledges will form the basis of our programme for government negotiation.
This Assembly election will finally offer a real debate on the real issues. That reality has come about because the public have demanded no less. That is an incredibly positive development.
May’s choice is becoming clear.
In this election, the SDLP will be the only Nationalist party serious about the business of government, not just serious about the symbolism of Government.
That’s the new alternative on offer.
This is the new team who will deliver it.