New SDLP leader: We can become winners again

Colum Eastwood is declared leader of the SDLP. He is pictured here with new deputy Fearghal McKinney
Colum Eastwood is declared leader of the SDLP. He is pictured here with new deputy Fearghal McKinney

The SDLP’s youngest-ever leader has pledged to make it a party of winners.

Colum Eastwood, 32, promised to re-engage the electorate in a fresh political conversation after he defeated incumbent Dr Alasdair McDonnell in the race for the SDLP’s top post.

The Foyle Assembly Member and former mayor of Londonderry secured 172 votes to Dr McDonnell’s 133 in the election at the party’s annual conference in Armagh .

Mr Eastwood was only 14 at the SDLP’s zenith when the party played a key role in securing the historic Good Friday peace agreement.

In the decades since its star has gradually waned in the face of the electoral march of Sinn Fein.

In a rousing acceptance speech to the party faithful in the Armagh City Hotel, Mr Eastwood said he refused to accept the SDLP was condemned to political obscurity.

“We have been asked, conference, to quietly accept the inevitable, to go quietly into the night,” he said.

“But the timeless fascination and attraction of politics is, there is no such thing as the inevitable. There is a future to be fought for.”

He told delegates “big ideas could turn the tide”.

“We can make the political weather again, we can win again, it’s time to win again - let’s unite, let’s win together,” he concluded, as party members rose to cheer and applaud their new leader.

Earlier, outgoing leader Mr McDonnell appeared emotional as he wished Mr Eastwood well.

“I have given my all and then a bit more to this party,” he said.

South Belfast MLA Fearghal McKinney ousted SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly in the other main vote at the conference.

Three years ago, Mr Eastwood caused controversy when he carried the coffin of a republican friend at a paramilitary-style funeral.

In his first speech as leader he launched a strong attack against the “vanity and insanity” of dissident republicans and stressed the extremists’ fight was not with the British government – it was with the people of Ireland.

“There will only ever be one winner in that battle,” he said.