By Victoria Leonard
January 25 2019
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party’s partnership with Fianna Fail “marks an important contribution in finally breaking the cycle of vacuum and division which has failed our people over the last two years”.
Sharing a platform with Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin at yesterday’s announcement of the plan, Mr Eastwood referred to last Saturday’s car bomb in Londonderry and subsequent security alerts, warning that “political vacuums never end well in Northern Ireland”, and describing the Stormont stalemate as a “disgrace” and a “crisis”.
SDLP MLA Claire Hanna, who has spoken out against the political partnership, was notable by her absence.
In his speech Mr Eastwood said he accepted the partnership “may be uncomfortable for some in both our parties”, and that the proposal would be brought before the SDLP membership for approval.
It is understood that this will happen next month.
Mr Eastwood said the partnership “doesn’t spell the end” of the SDLP, and the party had “a proud history, a proud identity, and what we’re trying to do is make it stronger”.
Outlining the plan, he said that he and Mr Martin had “agreed a common proposal on how best to respond to the crisis which consumes our politics”.
He added that the Brexit referendum had “uncovered a deeper divide in politics across these islands” but said it would be too narrow a response to “just firefight the consequences of Brexit”.
“As leaders, we are therefore agreed that the scale and longevity of this crisis requires a new agenda and new response,” Mr Eastwood said.
“It must be an agenda that restores some public faith in politics, addresses pressing social and economic challenges and maps out a new vision for a new Ireland.
“Our parties are determined to work together to try and change the failure our politics lies frozen in.”
Mr Eastwood said the two had agreed to “work in partnership on an unprecedented programme of public engagement in Northern Ireland” organised around three central themes.
The first would be “a politics that works”, to address the failures of current political practice here and to explore the need for a new economic model.
The second would be “better public services”.
The third, “uniting Ireland’s people”, would involve addressing “practical steps for greater co-operation and the shape of future possible constitutional arrangements should a unification poll be held and passed”.
Mr Eastwood added the SDLP and Fianna Fail would jointly undertake a programme of public engagement, with specific policy proposals prepared on issues including Brexit, economic development, and reforming institutions. This would be linked to a public forum, and followed by the publication of specific recommendations.
He said: “Devolved government in Northern Ireland has failed to demonstrate to our people that local governance can deliver for their needs and the needs of their communities. When contrasted with the reputation and record of the Scottish Government, Stormont has fallen embarrassingly short.
“Therefore, this partnership seeks to deliver an alternative to a government record of mismanagement, incompetence and inertia delivered by the DUP and Sinn Fein.
“The SDLP and Fianna Fail will agree and deliver joint policies which can be effectively implemented in government across the island.
“In doing so, we will be jointly delivering a credible programme for change across Ireland.
“This will be the first time this has happened in Irish politics.”
He also warned that the “vision and spirit at the heart” of the Good Friday Agreement was under threat.
“Both of our parties were the key architects and builders of the Good Friday Agreement. Neither myself or Micheal are prepared to allow that common legacy of our parties, endorsed by the Irish people, to be diminished or destroyed,” he said.
“We are joining together to protect it and renew it whilst also building for the future.”
Mr Martin vowed that the parties would work together on proposing alternatives for critical issues.
“Obviously Brexit will be the first priority. Under the best possible scenario we will be entering into two or more years of discussions about Northern Ireland’s relationship with the EU,” he said.
“The backstop is, as EU leaders keep saying, not a permanent solution, yet no one appears to have been working on a permanent solution.”
Mr Martin added it was Fianna Fail’s “core belief that a united and republican future is the best way of serving the interests of all who live on this island, but equally we have shown how it is possible to disagree on this while working together on other issues”.
He said: “We must accept that there is a deep crisis and a new way forward must be plotted. A new agenda which responds to the needs of the people of all parts of this island, which can show that we don’t just have to accept the permanent cycle of partisanship, underdevelopment and crisis, is urgently needed.” Mr Eastwood said that the two parties were “not talking about a merger, we’re talking about a partnership to deal with the problems faced by our people”.
And Mr Martin said he didn’t “have a crystal ball” regarding the future.
He added that his party would support the SDLP during Westminster elections and would “give capacity to help their candidates get elected in future elections to Westminster”.
He ruled out standing Fianna Fail candidates here at this time.
When asked about Ms Hanna, Mr Eastwood said they were “not talking about losing anybody, what we’re talking about is building – building a new partnership with Fianna Fail, and a new connection with voters”.
“The SDLP will make its decision, the party membership will make its decision, and I think everybody will and should abide by that decision,” he added.
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