Alasdair McDonnell has insisted he will remain as leader of the SDLP and labelled the challenge from Colum Eastwood for the position as “premature”.
The South Belfast MP said he is very feeling “very comfortable” about the contest, due to be decided at the annual party conference in Armagh next weekend.
“I’m talking to a lot of people across the country in ones, and twos and threes and fours, and they want me to remain as leader so, when that crystalises itself in 10 days’ time, I expect to be leader beyond the conference,” Dr McDonnell said, ahead of an internal party hustings in Londonderry this weekend.
“I’ve been speaking to the majority of the delegates and there is a majority of them backing me. There is 300-odd delegates, and you can do the sums. I’m not going into the details of numbers. The point is a majority is a majority, and I’m well through my phone calls to people and I’ll be continuing that through the next week.”
Asked if he would put a bet on himself to win, he said: “Well now, I’m not a betting man. I don’t think I have ever bet in my life. I have won a lot of elections where I haven’t been the favourite and I haven’t had time, quite frankly, I’ve been talking to so many people. The bookies don’t have votes. I’m talking to the people who have votes. I’m very happy with that. I’m in a political operation here fighting for the political future, to making Northern Ireland work.”
When asked what he thought of support for Colum Eastwood from senior SDLP figures including Seamus Mallon, Brid Rodgers, Sean Farren and Denis Haughey, he replied: “There is a lot of delegates and they are entitled to their viewpoint. You know, I’m trying to create an SDLP for 2020/2025/2030. The point is these were good people in their day, but time is moving on and the agenda moves on and the expectations the public have of the party move on.”
Mr McDonnell said the “rebuilding and renewal programme” within the SDLP will contine.
When asked if Colum Eastwood’s leadership challenge came a surprise, Mr McDonnell said: “I welcome and can expect a challenge at anytime. People are entitled to come foreward at any stage, and I welcome that.”
Mr McDonnell added: “If I am elected as party leader, I am elected party leader and I will continue to do the job I’ve been elected to do. I’ve been building here, and I’ve brought in a lot young people and Colum (Eastwood) is typical of a lot of the young people I have brought in. I have no doubt Colum has a very bright future and, down the road he will, if he wishes, have a key part to play in the future of the party, but it’s probably premature in the mouth of an election and in the currents talks situation at Stomont and all the rest, I think Colum will blossom going forward and I would look to him to play a key part in the leadership in the next couple of years. While I’m leader I’ll be happy to have his effort and input into what’s going on.”