Northern Ireland must use EU elections as ‘people’s vote’ on Brexit, says SDLP leader

Colum Eastwood says voters must return remainers on 23 May to send a message to London

Ben Kelly@BenKellyTweets
Saturday 27 April 2019 15:27
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SDLP leader seeks support for proposal to revive power sharing

Northern Ireland must use the EU elections as a ‘people’s vote’ on Brexit, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said.

The MLA says May's election must be used by the region to send a strong pro-remain message to London.

Northern Ireland’s three seats in the European Parliament are currently held by Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson, the DUP’s Diane Dodds and the UUP’s Jim Nicholson, but Mr Nicholson’s decision not to seek re-election has opened up a race for the third seat.

Mr Eastwood, who has led the SDLP since 2015, is campaigning to take that seat, in what he says is a referendum on Brexit.

“This is no ordinary election,” he told The Independent, “this is a battle about remain versus leave. This is the North’s people’s vote. This is our opportunity to say that we’re not having Brexit, and we’re definitely not having a hard border.

“We need to send a message to London, because Brussels is already behind us."

A total of 56 per cent of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in 2016, with polls suggesting support has since risen as high as 69 per cent.

Mr Eastwood will be in competition with Alliance party leader Naomi Long, but defends the choice not to agree a pro-Remain candidate between themselves, on account of Ms Long turning down an electoral pact in the past.

“Alliance would have to double their vote to take the seat and I don’t think that’s realistic. I need the support of people who disagree with me on some issues, even on big issues like the union, because this is more important right now," he said.

Mr Eastwood is following in the tradition of SDLP founder John Hume, who sat in the European Parliament from 1979 to 2004.

He said: “The EU is in the SDLP’s DNA and John made it so. We are the most pro European party in the north. Sinn Féin were always anti-Europe, it’s good that they’ve changed their mind, but we are the strongest messengers for remain.”

Speaking about the murder of journalist Lyra McKee at the hands of dissident republicans in his home city of Derry last week, Mr Eastwood said people in the region were “sad and ashamed” about what happened.

“The tragic murder of Lyra has just made people very angry," he said.

"The mood here now is for people to get back to work, and come back together again.”

On Friday, the British and Irish governments announced fresh talks in an attempt to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland, and Mr Eastwood has called on his fellow party leaders to seize the moment after two years of no executive.

“We cannot allow the instability that has been created by our lack of government to then end up in a political vacuum which can then be exploited by people with guns," he said.

In a bid to see functioning government restored at Stormont, the SDLP are advocating for a suspension of the petition of concern - a mechanism which was designed to safeguard minority rights, but which has been used by the DUP as a veto against issues like same-sex marriage.

Mr Eastwood also has some choice words for the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley, who he says has “not covered herself in glory” during her tenure.

“But it almost doesn’t matter about Karen,” he adds. “Parties in the north need to show willingness now.”

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