‘I am here for long haul’ says SDLP leader after crushing defeat

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

The leader of the SDLP has said he is in his post “for the long haul” after every one of his three MPs lost their seats.

As the results were emerging, Colum Eastwood told the News Letter that he is anxious about “the future of this country”.

(l-r): Alasdair McDonnell (South Belfast), Margaret Ritchie (South Down) and Mark Durkan (Foyle) lost their seats, wiping out the SDLP's presence at Westminster. All three are former leaders of the party.

(l-r): Alasdair McDonnell (South Belfast), Margaret Ritchie (South Down) and Mark Durkan (Foyle) lost their seats, wiping out the SDLP's presence at Westminster. All three are former leaders of the party.

A statement from Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams meanwhile hailed the outcome of the election as a “historic result” for his party, leaving it in control of seven of the 18 seats in Northern Ireland, compared to four before.

According to an analysis by the BBC, Sinn Fein’s overall vote share also increased, from 24.5% in 2015, to 29.4%.

The SDLP’s meanwhile slipped from 13.9% to 11.7%.

Mr Eastwood said: “There is huge constitutional flux at the minute and all of us have to reflect on the way forward...

Gerry Adams

Gerry Adams

“We have a lot of thinking to do. Politics has a lot of thinking to do.”

Asked about his own position as party leader, he said: “I am in this for the long haul and we will have a conversation over the next few days, not about the SDLP but about the future for this country. That’s what we are all worried about and concerned about.”

All three of the SDLP figures who lost their seats are former leaders of the party – Mark Durkan (2001-2010), Margaret Ritchie (2010-2011), and Alasdair McDonnell (2011-2015).

Following the loss of the Foyle Westminster seat to Sinn Fein on Friday by a miniscule margin of just 0.4% – a seat which the SDLP had held ever since it was created in 1983 – a statement was circulated online by the party from John Hume and his wife Pat.

Mr Hume led the SDLP for over two decades, and the statement said: “We face many challenges now. Narrow identity-based politics threaten our ability to shape a peaceful future. Mark’s political vision and immense skill are needed now more than ever.”

Once the full results were known on Friday morning, Gerry Adams said the campaign had been “a truly national effort by Sinn Fein, and I want to thank all of our activists who travelled from all parts of the island to help secure this historic result”.

Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s self-described leader in the north, said the election amounted to a “watershed”, adding: “For the first time since the foundation of the state the unionist vote was less than 50% in a Westminster election.”

According to the BBC, the vote share of the two main unionist parties was 46.3% (with other unionist parties making a negligible contribution), whilst the share of the SDLP and Sinn Fein combined was 41.1%.

Despite having triggered the collapse of Stormont by walking out of the Executive, and being blamed by unionists for blocking its restoration, Mr Adams said: “The taoiseach and DUP need to focus on restoring the political institutions.”

He later added: “One thing we can say for certainty, there is going to be a referendum on Irish unity. I can’t say when, but there is going to be.”