SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has revealed that he will be his party's candidate at the anticipated European Election scheduled for next month.
In confirming the move to the Derry News he contended that the political upheaval over Brexit in effect presents pro-European voters in Northern Ireland with a gilt-edged opportunity to essentially reaffirm it’s position as a ‘remain’ voice as it did in the EU Referendum in June 2016.
The move also means that for the first time, four politicians from Derry will be in the fray during a European poll.
Mr Eastwood will be joined in the electoral contest by sitting Sinn Fein MEP, Martina Anderson, former SDLP leader and MP for Foyle Mark Durkan who is standing for Fine Gael in the Dublin constituency. Former Irish Presidential candidate and businessman Peter Casey will also be contesting the election in the Midlands Northwest constituency in the Republic.
Speaking to the Derry News, Colum Eastwood said: “This a unique election. It’s a major, major opportunity to send a very clear message.
“Right now what we have representing Northern Ireland in the European Parliament is one remainer and two people who represent parties who want to leave the European Union.
“So, this is the chance to put two remainers back in Europe. This is our people’s vote-this is our referendum on Brexit again.
“The DUP seat is safe, the Sinn Fein seat is safe. The battle is now when you look at the numbers between the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party and actually also Jim Allister (TUV).
“So, it’s a three-way fight for one seat. I think it would be a real tragedy if we sent a message to London and Brussels if we send two leave parties back and only one remain.”
Northern Ireland has contested European Elections since 1979 and is treated as a single constituency that returns three members to the European Parliament.
Currently, Northern Ireland is represented by Martina Anderson of Sinn Fein, Diane Dodds of the DUP and Jim Nicholson from the Ulster Unionist Party.
However, Mr Nicholson has announced his intention to retire having been an MEP since 1989. It is understood that Danny Kennedy will seek the UUP nomination for the election on May 23.
Colum Eastwood asserted that sending two pro-leave representatives back to the European Parliament after next month’s election would be a factor used by them to reiterate their case for departing the EU by October 31 at the latest.
Whilst Britain should have already completed Brexit, the failure by Westminster MPs to ratify a departure deal means that the EU exit has been extended to this autumn at the latest.
Brexit could take place prior to Halloween if a deal is hurriedly agreed. However since that is highly unlikely to take place before May 23, European Elections will now almost certainly take place.
Speaking to the Derry News Mr Eastwood said: “As much as I didn’t expect to be doing this I think it’s important to step up and to step forward and to take this fight on.
“We are going to be asking people to lend us their vote. We know we need to do that. We know we need to take votes from people who don’t traditionally vote for us, whether they normally vote Sinn Fein or Alliance, Green Party or even Ulster Unionist Party. That’s because we are the strongest anti-Brexit voice. We always have been pro-European and the only one’s that can win that third seat.
“So, this isn’t about me or the SDLP, it’s about a strong pro-remain, anti-Brexit message in the middle of a very sensitive negotiation needing to be sent from the North of Ireland. If we don’t do that we are handing over a major victory to the leavers.”
The SDLP sent an internal party memo around a week ago seeking applicants for EU candidacy by 5pm on April 11.
So, the Derry News asked Mr Eastwood if any applicants had come forward from within the party or whether he was left with no choice but to run himself?
He said: “That’s just the process of how we operate. Everybody is entitled to put their names forward. But, there was a strong sense from across the party encouraging me to stand.
“So, I am the only hat in the ring because I think people want me to do it. This is the best chance we’ve had since John Hume retired and I think it’s important that we put our best foot forward.
“It would be a lot easier for me not to run, but there’s a moment when leaders have to lead and I like leading from the front. I don’t like sitting back and sending other people out into the big battles.
“Winning is by no means inevitable. We need to increase our vote, take votes from other people and borrow votes from other parties. But again, we need to be very clear that it’s not about the SDLP or me, it’s about saying that this is a pro-remain area and we are not about to be dragged out of the European Union against our will and we are definitely about to accept a hard border across this island.
“That is a message that I think can attract votes from across the political spectrum.”
Given that, the Derry News also asked Colum Eastwood what he thought his chances of winning actually are?
“I think we’ve a good chance. We were fewer than 2,000 first preference votes behind the Ulster Unionist Party last time. We are in fourth position, we need to get into third and to do that we need more than second preferences.
"We need first preferences from people who don’t normally vote for us. But, I think if we can get our vote to our normal Assembly or Westminster vote we can win the seat. Alliance would need to more than double their vote to be in the race,” said the SDLP leader.
Mr Eastwood was also asked if the retirement of the UUP’s Jim Nicholson from the political arena had influenced his decision to stand and if he believed that the nationalist party can attract EU votes from within moderate unionism?
Colum Eastwood said: “I think we can first preference votes from moderate unionists because I think people clearly understand now that while some people in the UUP were for remain, shortly after the referendum they said that was the issue done-that they want to leave now and they don’t support the backstop. In reality this means they don’t want to protect us against a hard border.
“So, it’s a clear choice now and it really wouldn’t matter to me who the Ulster Unionist candidate was. They’ve made their decision to row in behind the position of the DUP and I think a lot of people from a unionist background don’t like that.
“I’m not saying to people vote for me because we’re going to agree on every issue-we aren’t going to agree on the union for a start, we are going to disagree on many things. This is a referendum on Europe, it’s a referendum on Brexit and all the negotiating that’s been done since 2016.
"We have the opportunity to have a people’s vote and it will be a real missed opportunity if we sent back two leavers. And, it wouldn’t be reflective across the North are-they want to remain in the European Union.
“On this issue alone I’m not asking people to covert to SDLP politics or suddenly become nationalist, I’m asking people to vote on the basis that we want to stop Brexit.
“That’s just the electoral reality as uncomfortable as it may be for some people who support the Alliance Party or others. Sometimes in elections you have to think, who can win.”
The Derry News also asked Mr Eastwood if he would have preferred to have his former party leader Mark Durkan still in the fold to contest the European Election?
He said: "Mark would have been a great candidate. He's a good candidate now in Dublin, but politics really isn't about what may have happened. We are here now, we have an election. I'm not the type of person who says there's a tough fight over there, I'm going to send somebody else. There's a battle there and I want to be in it."
Finally, the Derry News asked Colum Eastwood if he loses out in the election if it will jeopardise his leadership of the SDLP in anyway?
"No. Again, this isn't about me or even the SDLP this is remain versus leave. It's that simple. People have a choice. This is John Hume's seat and there's also the fact that we can have a lot of influence within that European Parliament. Even aside from that, because I think anybody can go and make good speeches, this about sending a message that we can take a leaver out and have a pro-remain, anti-Brexit voice. That's just necessary," he said.
CAPTION: SDLP leader Colum Eastwood pictured at the Derry News office confirming that he will contest the EU poll in May.
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