New SDLP leader Colum Eastwood signalled a “major departure for northern nationalism” as he delivered his first speech as party leader at the party’s conference in his native city of Londonderry.
Held in St Columb’s hall in the heart of the city, the day included panel discussions covering crime, the environment, the EU referendum, education, health and Irish unification.
The Foyle MLA told delegates – and a Saturday night TV audience – that “a fractured Ireland” would never be at peace with its own imagination, would be poorer and would be less capable of achieving its potential.
In a confidently delivered speech, he went on: “But for Ireland to be reunited, Northern Ireland has to work. This is the essence of our progressive nationalism. As I have said before, we now have a selfish and strategic interest in making Northern Ireland work.
“Although many have been slow to grasp the significance of that statement, people should understand that this is a major departure for northern nationalism.
“Whilst working to build a new North, we are also strategically building our broader nationalist vision. In the run down to the centenary of the 1916 Rising we should remind ourselves that our faith rests in the authority and sovereignty of the Irish people.”
In a pointed jibe at Sinn Fein’s leadership, he added: “And the people of Ireland have a different understanding of what a ‘good republican’ is than some of our political leaders. ‘Good republicans’ don’t smuggle diesel and make fortunes from the border.”
The upcoming election is set to witness a showdown within nationalism in Foyle, where the SDLP has held sway for decades over Sinn Fein.
The entry of a third Sinn Fein candidate to the race in the constituency in the form of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness means that there will be a high-profile battle to see which, if either, of the two parties can maintain party political supremacy.
That theme was part of Mr Eastwood’s address. The SDLP leader said: “The joint First Minister Martin McGuinness has announced the he is coming back into Derry in the expectation that he will be gifted three seats.
“Well Martin should take a look and see what happened recently in Donegal. Three into two won’t go.”