16 May 2022

Colum Eastwood 'absolutely' sure he will see a united Ireland in his lifetime

Colum Eastwood recently turned 38 but is a veteran of the local political scene having served on Derry City Council and within the Northern Ireland Assembly, before securing the Foyle seat at Westminster in 2019. He took over as leader of the SDLP leader in 2015. He spoke to Derry News managing editor Ciaran O’Neill about his efforts to revive the SDLP, the need to convince unionists of the merits of a united Ireland and the brutality of political life.


SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

CON: You have been SDLP leader since 2015 and have been credited with reviving a struggling party? What has been toughest part of that process?

CE: Well, I suppose the party has a tremendous pedigree, history and record really, of changing society. I always think we're the most successful political party in Irish history, because I think we changed the course of Irish history, through John (Hume) and Seamus (Mallon) and everybody else, by basically ending the Anglo-Irish conflict, which is something that nobody else was able to do.

And then we had the post agreement period, which was very difficult and bedding down and all of that. And two governments who I think thought maybe the two extremes need to be brought into the middle.

That's all understandable and fine but it didn't really work well for the public, I don't think. So we were kind of...and the things we did ourselves that should have been done a lot better. We were a bit too slow to refresh and to renew and to realize that the job isn't just to protect the agreement, it's to tell people what's next and what the next phase of politics is going to be. All understandable, nobody's fault, but we just needed... We needed to refresh. The hardest part I suppose was bringing in so many new people. Big generational change. And doing it at a time when we had six or seven elections within a very short period of time.

So surviving was the hard part at the start, getting through that, and then showing that we could look different, sound different and actually have a vision for the future that wasn't just about the past.

The job's not done. It's far from done. We passed the last test, which was the Westminster election. I think we showed people that there's life left in us and that we're worth voting for.

CON: You came up through the local council and the Assembly, before winning the Westminster seat. Given your background in local politics, what relevance do you think Westminster has to the people of Derry?

CE: Well, for me, it's all about Derry, frankly. I'm first and foremost a representative of the people of Derry, even more so than the SDLP. I've always viewed myself in that light.

So there's two of us and even if we won every seat in Northern Ireland there'd be 18 of us.

So we're not going to run the government or anything like that, but what we are going to do is make sure they know we exist and Derry exists. And I am very determined to make sure that when we're there, that our voice is heard.

And I think we've been a very loud and active, Claire (Hanna) and myself. We are able, I think, to bring in support from the Labour party, from the SNP, Plaid Cmyru and also even from some more moderate Tories to make sure that the voice of people here is heard at Westminster.

You don't win a lot of votes when Boris Johnson has an 80-seat majority. We know that. We accept that. But that's not always the job of politicians.

The job is to speak up for the people that you represent. I wish we had been there in that '17 to '19 period because there were votes on Brexit that were lost by three votes. Of course, we know that some of my political opponents don't turn up, which is their prerogative, but I think it's a mistake, particularly at times when votes are important.

The reality is you don't count if you're not there and you don't count if you're not in the chamber and you're not speaking up for the people that you represent. And there are issues that Derry needs to be represented on, issues of legacy, issues of the economy. But there are also issues that I think many people in Derry care about that aren't just Derry issues, so international issues, environmental issues.

We're doing a lot on climate change. I'm working with other parties and people from across different parties to try to make sure that those issues are dealt with. But, I think we punch above our weight in the chamber and I think we've been recognized as that. And I just frankly, I think you go wherever you have to go to represent the people that you care about.

I've represented at most levels now, the people of Derry, from council, being mayor, to the assembly, now to Westminster. I take the exact same approach, no matter where it is.

We've a very, very active constituency office, we've top class representatives in council and the assembly. I represent the party in Westminster. But if you look at my constituency inbox, it's mostly local issues that we're dealing with and I'm very happy to be doing that.

CON: The SDLP recently launched its New Ireland Commission. We already have the Shared Ireland Unit from the Irish government and the Ireland's Future group. Is the New Ireland Commission not just another ‘nationalist talking shop’?

CE: Well, first of all, in terms of Shared Ireland Unit I was very happy to see the Irish government bring that it. So it's a unit that'll look at a lot of the different issues across the island, but it's more than that. It's 500 million pounds that can be spent in the north. I worked very closely with the Taoiseach to make sure that happened and we're delighted that it did and we'll be working to get some of that money up our direction. That's a key priority for me.

In terms of what the SDLP are doing the New Ireland Commission is... So it'll be a whole lot of different things but the panel that we launched recently, is a panel of experts, but it isn't a nationalist talking shop. I can talk to myself all day long if I want to.

We have a lot of people in there, the former moderator of the Presbyterian church, the former secretary of the Ulster Unionist Party. We've people from right across the political divide. We have a former blanket man. We won't win anything or build anything across this island, if we only speak to ourselves.

I mean, I know how I am voting in a referendum no matter when it comes. I know how Edwin Poots is going to vote. I don't know quite how that middle ground is going to vote.

And the middle ground is very broad. It involves people who class themselves as nationalists, people who class themselves as unionists, people who class themselves as other.

But unless we're learning and listening and figuring out what the issues are, health service, for example. I know a lot of people who see themselves as Irish nationalists, who wouldn't vote for a united Ireland if they had to pay to go and see their GP, for example.

So all of those issues need ironing out. What we're planning to do is listen, talk, have big conversations, particularly with people who disagree with us so that we can figure our thinking on all of that.

And by the end of it, be able to put to the public a prospectus for change when the referendum comes, and it will come, that has got all the boxes ticked and all the... I didn't want to be fighting a referendum campaign where we haven't solved the problems yet, where we're not clear about what we're saying to people.

I actually think a lot of that is very easy to do, but it's really important from our perspective that we put the British unionist concerns front and centre, because... especially as unionist parties aren't going to engage in this until it's too late, probably. So we're going to have to do a lot of the arguing for them.

We talk about a new Ireland. A new Ireland is not going to be just full of Irish nationalists. There's a million Protestant unionist people living on this island and more probably, and there's a lot of people who've come from all over the world.

And all of those things need to be put right front and centre in the new nation that we want to build. And this will challenge the South in a big way, as much as it challenges us because if you look at the last hundred years, I don't think that British unionist tradition was properly respected or celebrated within the Irish southern state. That needs to be fixed.

So there's a great opportunity actually, to build a nation and to put reconciliation and all the different strands of opinion right at the heart of that. That's a vision that goes back a long time. It's never been delivered, but it's what we believe in. That new Ireland where everybody feels comfortable and celebrated and part of it and bought into it.

It'll be uncomfortable. It'll be difficult.

But this is why we're doing the work early, because I think that needs time, those difficulties need ironed out. We need an exciting prospectus that everybody can buy into not just... You don't want people just voting for something because their parents would. You want people excited about a new opportunity. And I think young people will be very excited about this.

People will want to be part of a open, progressive world, part of the European Union. They don't want any more to be run by a political party in London who is basically an English nationalist party, doesn't care, about Northern Ireland, Scotland, even Wales.

They have a very narrow vision of the world. I just don't think young people want that regardless of what religion they are, what religion their parents are or whatever. They want a new, progressive, open world.

And this is an opportunity I think, to be part of that.

CON: Is it time for a new message from the likes of the SDLP to unionism. I think there's always been that attitude within unionists that basically the message they're getting from nationalism is ‘Come to a United Ireland with us and we'll look after you’. For many unionists, that is not enough. How can you as SDLP leader reach out to unionists?

CE: Well, there's no future without them is what I would say. Yeah, I agree. You just get a rhetoric around and we want to involve you. That's lovely. But actually doing that and putting their concerns front and centre and challenging ourselves and our maybe, image of what a new Ireland would look like is the real challenge.

So I have asked all of my elected representatives right across the north, and we've been doing this now for some time, to go out and have lots of conversations, but mostly to listen to people from, traditionally unionist backgrounds.

People who don't necessarily agree with us. And we're collecting all that information, we're very deliberately going to have lots of meetings with people who disagree with us, who are from a different background.

And it actually is fascinating to hear how people are interested in what we're talking about. And people are engaging, but political parties aren't engaging, unionist political parties, and that's fine. Almost you think, why would they. But we have a job to do, to engage with people from a unionist background, from that big block of the people called other.

And I think if we can listen to them properly, we can then plan for a new Ireland. We're going to have to do I think we're arguing for unionist people, because unionist parties aren't going to do this. They're going to wait until it's too late. So I think there's a.... So it'll be very practical. We'll be listening to their concerns. We'll be challenging Dublin because you can't you couldn't imagine a new Ireland where unionists will have to walk into Leinster House for example, where there's no real respect given or even acknowledgement given to the unionist tradition, to the British tradition on the island. It's all understandable and we know how that all happened, but that needs fixing. It needs resolved.

A lot of this will be symbolic. I think you can add symbolism in to a lot of these places rather than taking away.

If you look at the Guildhall, for example in Derry, the SDLP, largest party in Derry City Council for many, many years. We could have taken the approach where we'll strip all that out, we'll take away any vestiges of British imperialism, we'll take down Queen Victoria that's already damaged from the bomb and all that.

We'll take all the stained glass windows that reference the empire, take all that away, but we didn't. And if we did do that, you'd be knocking down the city walls.

What you have to recognize, I think is that history happened. Everybody's got their own version of it. We're all raised in different ways and we're all affected and infected by all the different strands of it.

So you have to embrace that as a history, learn from it, but include other symbolism and other cultures and be prepared to be opened up.

So if you look at Guildhall again, you have the memorial to Bloody Sunday, and then you have Queen Victoria and you have Union Jacks all the around. There's something in that. There's something in embracing all the different strands of our history.

So I do think there's a job to do, in Stormont for example, of having much more of the nationalist tradition being seen. But there's a huge job to do in Leinster House and having the unionist tradition being front and centre.

We have to make people comfortable. We have to be very honest and very determined to ensure that people know that this is their place, this is their nation, they're going nowhere.

It's a shared Ireland that we want to create, it's a shared home place as Seamus Mallon used to talk about it.

We have to, whatever happens by the way, in the constitutional settlement, we have to find better ways of sharing this piece of ground together. The unionists aren't going anywhere. They're here. They're part of our community. We're all part of the one community.

I think we need to use that language a lot more often. And we have to just be very deliberate and determined not to get distracted or side-tracked by tribalism or us versus them.

We have to be determined to create one place for everybody. We've done an awful lot of that over the last 20 odd years. There's much further to go, I think. But Derry, frankly is a brilliant example of it. I remember, I told the story a few times now, but I remember being at the Diamond. I was 16 or 17.

I was standing beside John Hume and the Apprentice Boys were marching around the city and I was kind of angry and young and saying, what are they doing here and all this kind of stuff.

And John, very, as he was brilliant at, very quickly just demolished my argument by saying how are we going to have a united Ireland if we can't accommodate the Apprentice Boys marching around Derry. I was just like, that's absolutely the case and it's always stuck with me.

We want to have a new Ireland, the Protestant tradition, unionist tradition, the Orange tradition has to be an integral part of it.

It's just uncomfortable for some people, but that's the way it has to be.

CON: Do you see the recent change of leadership in the DUP and the divisions within the party as dangerous?

CE: It has the potential to be dangerous but my gut actually is that Poots will become the pragmatist. I think he will run to... if he has any sense, we'll see, but he will take that hardcore, hard line position and move it a bit more to the centre.

We see last night that he's now saying that they're going to attend north south ministerial councils.

He told me that they want to implement all of the NDNA commitments, which of course includes Irish language.

But it also needs to include expansion of university provision in Derry. It needs to deal with waiting lists, it needs to deal with all the commitments in the NDNA agreement.

So we'll see. My sense is, if he has any sense, that's where he'd go. I think he might be beginning to signal that. But again, unionism is in a strange place.

It all goes back to Brexit, when the DUP leadership, previous leadership got them into this situation where they backed a Brexit which could only do them damage.

And then they backed the hard right of the Tory party, even when they had a way out with Theresa May which brought Britain out of the customs union and the single market. Which meant that she ended up having to have a border in the Irish sea and that was all self-defeating stuff.

A lot of us were saying, this is madness. What are you doing? But then they have to blame Europe and Leo Varadkar and everything else. But this was their own making, but it doesn't make the sense of loss or betrayal within ordinary unionist people any less and we understand that.

There has to be a realistic approach. You can't have a hard line Brexit and not have borders. You can't have a border on the end of Ireland even if it was politically palpable, it's totally impractical.

So it had to go somewhere. If you want to get rid of that, you have to do a vetinary SPS agreement between Britain and Europe.

Who's stopping that? The British government.

So, I think people should learn that within unionism, the British government are not your friends. They have never done anything to look after you or to help you. In fact, they keep letting you down.

And I think there's a lesson in that that if we actually work together here for our own common interests we'd be much better off than relying on people like Boris Johnson.

CON: How do feel about the recent decision by Sinn Fein to ask their two Foyle MLAs, Martina Anderson and Karen Mullan, to stand down from their Assembly seats?

CE: I'm reluctant to speak too much about what other political parties do internally although I did think it was very strange.

Look, Sinn Fein had a bad election obviously. We don't rest on our laurels or think the job's done or anything like but we do think the people want a change. They are fed up with, I think what was seen as kind of arrogance, but most importantly, a lack of delivery.

So Sinn Fein and the DUP in government, running the government for 14 years and that's... Stormont is where decisions are made. Magee is still not expanding, jobs crisis, lots of things just not done or delivered for people in Derry.

And then they see one political party with an awful lot of influence in certain community groups and all of that, and I think people find that very difficult to take.

In terms of the individuals, Martina Anderson is somebody who I have argued with many times over the years. But she is somebody who gave an awful lot in their terms to the Republican movement.

Karen Mullan, as far as I can see, is a very hard worker and diligent MLA who came from the community sector. I think it's a strange way to treat people who frankly gave an awful lot over the years and particular Martina.

And I just don't know how that will end up for them. I think they need to think more about how Sinn Fein in government, running the government jointly with the DUP hasn't delivered for the people of Derry.

That's the real problem, I think that's the real political problem. And they've had many opportunities. I am on their back constantly to actually do that and they still haven't done it.

To blame Martina Anderson or Karen Mullan for that I think it's probably short-sighted and maybe does not understand exactly the dynamic going on in Derry.

CON: The SDLP have had their own issues recently locally with Mary Durkan leaving the council. There are two candidates seeking to replace her. We have seen in the past where such selection processes have caused deep division within the SDLP locally. Are you concerned about the potential for division?

CE: No, I'm not concerned actually. Of course, we've had our issues in the past. We've largely, well, I think we've got rid of that but the team in Derry is united and when you're united you win.

And you can see how well we've done from the council election right through the Westminster election.

And that has been united teamwork together at all levels across the city.

There will be a selection convention, I think it's going to be Tuesday night. The membership in the area will decide.

And I think we're going to have a very good councillor in that position after that's done.

And regardless, whoever wins I'm absolutely confident the other person will be fully behind them, fully behind the team, because we've learned that lesson. Division doesn't get you anywhere, it just lets your opponents grow and we're not doing that anymore.

CON: The last few weeks have shown the brutality of politics. You are a relatively young man with a young family. You have been involved with the SDLP for many years but do you have any ambitions outside of politics?

CE: I suppose you don't know what will come. And as you say I've been involved in the party for a long time, kind of unnaturally young when I started.

And so I've seen an awful lot of leadership contests and all of that. I'm under no illusions about the fragility of a political career.

And you don't plan for a long career in politics.

But I'm genuinely just totally committed to this. You never know what will come. I have lots of other interests.

But right now I've been elected not that long ago to represent the city in Westminster. I intend to do that for as long as I can and continue to take the fight to the people like Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis and the rest of them.

And I have a plan for the party in the long term.

We were kind of interrupted by three years of no government and lots of elections.

We have a two election strategy that we're working on. The next test of that is going to be next May, hopefully. I think we'll do well and then we'll bounce up from there.

So what I'm constantly trying to do is build up the team, particularly at the assembly level and have as many good people as possible.

I don't want to be the kind of leader who's always on TV on my own and not having other people there. So we've built up that capacity. Personally, it is difficult being a politician, particularly being a political leader and having young kids and family. Rachael has her own businesses. And we both work very hard.

But I suppose we have this strong policy of whenever we're here, we're here. And the kids come first in everything.

And I make sure I spend as much time as I possibly can when I'm actually around. And one thing about the pandemic, it's been good because I've been able to be at home a lot more.

Working from home with two young kids is not the easiest thing in the world and I spend an awful lot of time in the car doing very important meetings from the driver's seat on Zoom. But no, I'm fully focused on the job at hand, whatever comes later that's another day's conversation.

CON: Do you think you will see a United Ireland in your lifetime?

CE: Absolutely. I think, maybe I'm being optimistic here, but I think there'll be a referendum before the end of this decade. And if not, shortly after that, and I think we'll win it.

The job is actually managing that process. I think the UK is coming to an end, if you look at what's happening in Scotland. Even Wales now is thinking in that direction. But Scotland is going to go and I think we'll go after.

Our job because of our particular circumstances is to monitor, to make sure it's done in a respectful way, a democratic way.

That means that we don't have trouble on the streets. All that is very possible. It's only possible if you do the work and you talk to each other.

If we get rid of all these culture wars, if we have the DUP and Sinn Fein and everybody else focusing on actually delivering, dealing with the waiting lists, getting jobs to places like Derry, stopping our young people having to leave, that's, I think the politics of the next period.

And if we can show that politics works then I think we can build towards a new Ireland.

And I think it will be done in relatively short order.

I studiously avoid putting a date on it, because I hear all these chants for border polls and all that.

I think it's the most stupid thing I've ever heard, because I think let's do the work now.

Let's convince people. And then the poll is the last thing you have, because I don't think we can afford to lose it. We have to win it.

And it isn't just about a referendum. It's about building a nation and that's a massive opportunity for our generation when others had to go through hell just to get peace.

So I think there's a big burden on us to get it right. I think we can get it right. I think sometime towards the end of this decade is when the referendum will be.

We just need to be aware. Right now the British government hold the cards. They can call a referendum whenever they want.

So we shouldn't be, I don't think we should be baiting them into calling a referendum that we can't win.

So we have to do the work, have the referendum when we can win it. And then win it. And then build a nation.

But we shouldn't hold back and wait for a magical Irish unity to begin to bring people together and create a shared home place.

That's the easiest route to winning a referendum and it's the only positive thing we can do.

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Conor Doherty of Derry, celebrates his side's third goal, scored by Benny Heron, during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Derry and Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds.

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