Sam McBride: Eastwood fighting for his MPs’ political lives

John O'Dowd (Sinn Fein); Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP);  Colum Eastwood (SDLP); Robin Swann (UUP) and Naomi Long (Alliance). Photo by William Cherry
John O'Dowd (Sinn Fein); Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP); Colum Eastwood (SDLP); Robin Swann (UUP) and Naomi Long (Alliance). Photo by William Cherry

Running like a thread through both the UTV and BBC’s leaders’ debates was the issue of Sinn Fein abstentionism.

Colum Eastwood, the strongest performer across the two debates, skilfully injected the issue into the discussion at various points using the premise that if Sinn Fein is not going to attend Westminster to vote on the issues under discussion then their position will not matter.

The issue gives the SDLP that which it desperately seeks in other elections – something with which to distinguish itself from its larger nationalist rival.

Although Sinn Fein’s stance on past IRA attacks still resonates with a section of the electorate, it is clear from the outcome of elections for more than a decade that an increasing majority of nationalist voters do not view that as an impediment to supporting the party.

In this election, Sinn Fein’s move away from that Troubles generation has accelerated, with a northern leader and a slate of candidates who don’t have a single IRA conviction between them. By the end of the year Gerry Adams could also be gone.

In that context, Mr Eastwood last night managed to land some blows on the Sinn Fein stand-in, John O’Dowd, by attempting to convey the importance of Northern Ireland’s voice being heard, particularly at a time of Brexit.

Mr Eastwood needed to do so, not least because his comments about pressing for a border poll are potentially disastrous in attracting the unionist tactical votes which sustain two of the three SDLP MPs.

If no SDLP MPs are elected on Thursday – something unlikely, but entirely possible – it will mean that for the first time there will be no Irish nationalist voice heard in the House of Commons.

As in the UTV debate, there was little debate between the DUP and UUP, which reflects the agreed unionist candidates in several seats and the fact that in only two seats are the DUP and UUP challenging each other seriously.

Alliance’s Naomi Long performed fairly strongly and was the sole individual on the panel who is standing in what is likely to be one of the closest contests of the election, in East Belfast.