Colum Eastwood will not stand aside as SDLP leader if elected MP

Colum Eastwood is putting himself forward as the SDLPs candidate in Foyle, hoping to unseat Sinn Féin MP Elisha McCallionColum Eastwood is putting himself forward as the SDLPs candidate in Foyle, hoping to unseat Sinn Féin MP Elisha McCallion
Colum Eastwood is putting himself forward as the SDLPs candidate in Foyle, hoping to unseat Sinn Féin MP Elisha McCallion
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has put himself forward to win back former Foyle MP Mark Durkan’s seat from Sinn Fein.

In a bold move which could put his leadership on the line if it fails, the Foyle MLA yesterday announced that he would be standing in December’s general election.

Mr Eastwood will attempt to unseat Sinn Fein’s Elisha McCallion, who defeated Mr Durkan – a former SDLP leader and a highly respected figure at Westminster – by just 169 votes in 2017.

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If he wins in the election on December 12, it will mean that Mr Eastwood will have to resign as an MLA.

That would mean – especially if Stormont is restored – that he would come under some pressure to relinquish the leadership, given that even unionist parties have come to take the view that they should be led from Stormont.

The favourites to take over as leader would be one of two Belfast MLAs, Claire Hanna and Nichola Mallon, although Ms Hanna could herself already be an MP by that stage if she succeeds in getting elected in South Belfast.

However, if Mr Eastwood does not win, his leadership may also come under pressure because it would be the second consecutive election in which he had put himself forward as the candidate and not succeeded in getting elected.

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When asked by the News Letter if Mr Eastwood would be standing aside as SDLP leader if he is successful in entering Parliament, the party last night said that he would not be resigning.

A spokesman said that he was elected leader each year at the party conference and that in the context of Brexit it was important to be present in Westminster.

Yesterday Sinn Fein was already erecting posters in Londonderry for Ms McCallion.

Unionist tactical votes are likely to be crucial to deciding who wins the seat in what is an overwhelmingly nationalist constituency.

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Several months after Ms McCallion’s victory, East Londonderry DUP MP Gregory Campbell told the House of Commons that “many people” were saying that election in Foyle that year had been a “clear case of electoral fraud’.

Similar allegations were made by the SDLP.

However, Sinn Fein rejected that as sour grapes and pointed to the absence of any prosecutions for vote-stealing.

There have been rumours for some weeks that Mr Eastwood may decide to stand in Foyle if there was a general election.

Yesterday morning he announced in a statement that he will be the SDLP’s candidate in what was once John Hume’s seat and which is the heart of the SDLP.

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There was no mention in the press release of a selection process or whether others within the party had been keen to run.

Mr Eastwood said that Brexit is “a national emergency that poses an unacceptable risk to the interests of this island and particularly to Derry”.

He said that Brexit “threatens people, businesses and communities across this island, but particularly in Derry where travelling across the border for work, to visit family or to socialise is a basic part of our lives”.

The SDLP leader said: “We have spent three years talking about the threats to jobs, livelihoods and border communities.

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“That’s time we should have spent expanding our university to give young people the opportunity to study on this island.

“It’s time we should have spent upgrading our transport infrastructure to attract high-quality new jobs.

“It’s time we should have spent addressing the legacy of conflict and the mental health crisis in homes and communities across this city.”

Mr Eastwood said that he would vote against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal – putting him in the same voting lobby as the DUP in the House of Commons, if he is elected, albeit for different reasons.

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He added: “This is a time for leadership. I understand that when the stakes are this high, you have to be prepared to take on the uncomfortable and the unprecedented.

“At a time when communities like ours should be setting the agenda, we need our first team on the pitch. Instead, Derry is on the sidelines. That’s not acceptable.

“This is a defining election. It is a moment of choice and a moment for change. I am not content to continue with the direction of travel. I will not sit idly by as our interests are undermined.”