In the first address by a serving SDLP leader to an Ulster Unionist conference, Colum Eastwood has told the UUP that he is committed to working closely with them in a cross-community Opposition to the Executive.
The Foyle MLA, who was welcomed to the stage by prolonged warm applause and afforded a standing ovation at the end of his speech, made explicitly clear that he still wants to see a united Ireland.
But Mr Eastwood insited that his ultimate goal should not stop the constitutionally divided parties from cooperating to work together with the Ulster Unionists in opposition at Stormont.
He drew applause from UUP delegates when he told them that both the SDLP and the UUP want to “make Northern Ireland work”.
He said: “Since the election there has been plenty of interest as to whether the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist party will work together in opposition. The answer is simple - of course we will. We are already doing so. Only this week we have scrutinised and offered solutions to ongoing emergencies in housing, homelessness and in our health service. That will continue and expand during the course of this mandate.
“The commitment to co-operation does not mean absolute unanimity or uniformity - and nor should it. Let me state the obvious -we are different parties with different policies and different visions of the future. Our Irish Nationalism and your Unionism will not seamlessly fit any time soon.
“However, this difference does not diminish our ability to pursue the commonality of our immediate cause. Both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists share the common ground of wanting to make Northern Ireland work. That’s a healthy common ground to hold for today and tomorrow.
The constitutional change of the future will be the product of persuasion.”
However, Mr Eastwood went on: “But amongst all that pleasantness let me say something slightly more difficult. Let me say something about the possibility of that constitutional change.
“If the last year has shown us anything, it is that we can’t blindly trust the permanence of the status quo. As a Nationalist party leader I have been honest that we have thus far failed to develop a credible and detailed vision of what a New Ireland can look like. We’re now beginning that work.
“As the SDLP engages in that work, I would welcome if Unionism began its own process of mapping out how it sees the future. The United Kingdom, as you have known it, as we all have known it, is no more. We all need to renew our thinking as to what political shape Britain and Ireland will take in this new century.”
Mr Eastwood challenged his hosts: “My appeal is this – try to convince us of your vision for the future and we’ll try to convince you of ours. Let it be a discussion based on hard facts and hard truths. Most of all let it be creative - and then in time let the people decide. That’s the way politics is supposed to work. It’s how it works at its best - without threat or theatrics.”
He accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of being “all guff and no governance”, adding that “even with 55 press officers, 16 special advisers and their new press secretary they struggle to fabricate the illusion of progress”.
He added: “together we must break up and break down that cosy establishment”.