SDLP leader Colum Eastwood launched the party manifesto at the Bishop's Gate Hotel this morning.
He made the following remarks.
"As we start, there is probably something we should first get out in the open. Both of the main challengers for this Westminster seat have now selected this city as their platform for their manifesto launches. There is a very understandable focus on the battle for Foyle seat – on its history and on its political implications. Of course, they are not wrong. The election here in Foyle on the 12th of December is going to be incredibly close. It’s a two-horse race and there can only be one winner - every single vote will count. 169 votes might seem like a healthy majority by the time this is all over. There is no denying the fact that people in Foyle will have a clear choice between myself and Elisha McCallion on the 12th of December. But to give sole focus to that story also misses a substantial part of why this election is so important to this city and to its people. It also misses the primary reasoning as to why I took the major decision to stand in this election. I believe in a very basic principle. You should only ever run to be elected, if you’re running to make a difference. That’s the real truth beneath all the headlines. We are launching this manifesto for change in Derry because this city is most in need of that change. Derry is tired of empty words and tired of empty seats. Derry deserves delivery.
Coming up to Christmas, thousands of our young people will return home. For about one week, it’s always the same here. This city is full of life, full of joy and it’s packed full of potential. But the sad truth is that most of those young people will leave again in the new year. That’s because of a very simple but deeply damaging formula - they live elsewhere because they work elsewhere. There isn’t a family in Derry who doesn’t live by that same story. If elected as your MP – my pledge is to work to the best of my ability to ensure that Derry’s potential is no longer limited to one week in the year. Our people deserve a home that reaches its potential in all 52 weeks of the calendar year. This city deserves to be a place where everyone, no matter their background, can grow up, live, work and build a home. We have the roadmap to that destination, but we can only do it if we elect people who are prepared to journey wherever it takes to deliver it. We can only do that by finally delivering the City Deal which Mark Durkan paved the way for – and don’t let anyone tell you different. We can only do that by finally delivering a medical school and a fully expanded Magee. We can only do it by building our infrastructure and attracting the jobs that have never truly reached past the boundaries of the Bann.
Brexit In Derry and across Northern Ireland, we also know that there lies the threat of a massive roadblock in the way of our future. The threat of Brexit and Boris Johnson looms over this election. There is a tendency in every election to define it as different. But I think people are very aware that this election is not only different - it is potentially decisive. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016 - it feels like the hand of history has been ever present on our collective shoulders. We all know what is at stake. Our relationships on these islands, our economy, our peace – our shared future. We are now just under 2 months away from Northern Ireland being dragged out of the European Union against our will. In the last two years we’ve been either misrepresented or not represented. In this election, we have an opportunity to send voices and votes to Westminster – that can stand up for us and stand against the DUP. In this election we simply can’t afford the luxury of voicing a strong protest. Turning your back on Brexit and ignoring it won’t prevent it from happening. Preventing it means facing it head on – it means voting against it. It means voting for people who will go to work and vote against it. It means voting for the SDLP.
Tribute to Sylvia Hermon Sending the SDLP back in numbers has never been more important. There is a real risk, that if the same pattern of results repeats itself in this election – only the DUP will take seats and hold sway in Westminster. I can think of no stronger motivation to go out and vote. We are fortunate that there was a lone voice but a strong voice during the last two years. I want to use this opportunity to pay tribute on behalf of the SDLP to Sylvia Hermon who has decided to stand down. Sylvia may have been surrounded by the DUP but she was never silenced by them. When Sylvia Hermon spoke, she spoke for all of us. None of us viewed her through the siloes of the traditional divide in Northern Ireland – she was our remain voice and she will be badly missed. This election is a chance to maximise the remain representation across Northern Ireland. That is what motivated the SDLP to take a lead in making that ambition a reality and removing as many damaging DUP votes as possible. That was a choice not about pacts but about protection – protecting us from Boris Johnson and protecting us from Brexit. The choice made by the SDLP was to be strategic, not selfish. By failing to recognise the widespread desire to maximise pro-European representation, it is ironic that those who have been most critical, have shown a selfish and narrow tribalism which they have spent much of their existence claiming to be against. The SDLP make no apologies for making difficult decisions that are designed to protect this island and our people from the damage of Brexit.
Manifesto pledges In dealing with the threat of Brexit, we must be equally focused on the additional threat that is inextricably linked to it - 5 years of a Boris Johnson Government. That’s why this manifesto sets out a range of commitments that will seek to bring a progressive agenda to influence all the decisions that, in the absence of devolution, Westminster is making on our behalf. The climate emergency is the greatest challenge and responsibility facing our generation. There is no time to spare, we have wasted too much already. SDLP MPs will work with others to bring forward emergency legislation incentivising the transition from a carbon-intensive to a carbon neutral economy by 2030 and support schemes to allow families to make informed decisions about a clean, green future. Protecting our pensioners against typical Tory cuts will also be a priority. The SDLP will fight and vote against any attempt to remove the free TV license from over 75s. It simply not good enough for the British Government to wash their hands of this issue. A vote for the SDLP is a vote to save free TV licences for our pensioners. SDLP MPs will also be there to vote alongside others to scrap Universal Credit and the bedroom tax, end the benefits freeze and secure and sustain payments for all of those facing into a benefits cliff-edge in March next year. It is a disgrace that our public sector workers have not alone had their wage packages frozen during a decade of austerity but have faced real term cuts. Unlike the DUP, who voted against a pay increase for public sector workers in an amendment to a Queen’s Speech tabled by the Labour Party, SDLP MPs will use our influence and votes to deliver a consolidated pay increase for public sector workers. We know that the most important incentive and boost to our economy and our businesses is the supply of local, diverse and highly educated young workers. SDLP MPs will work to ensure that any future funding package includes ring fenced resources for university expansion and skills development. That starts with the Medical School at Magee and the further expansion of our University to give young people the opportunity to study, work and build a life here. In a new Westminster session, we know that the Tories are gearing up to try and force through an amnesty for soldiers - which we know by law would in all likelihood extend to and cover all parliamentary organisations. This would be the ultimate betrayal of the truth and justice that victims were promised. SDLP MPs will stand by those victims and ensure that the mutual interests of those who inflicted the violence are not permitted to ride roughshod over the interests of those who suffered as a result of it. SDLP MPs stopped an amnesty before and we’ll do it again.
Taking control of our own future Of course, in the absence of devolution, Westminster will be making more and more decisions that will have a profound effect on all of us. People deserve the truth. The current semi-skimmed Direct Rule could be very quickly replaced by the full fat Boris Johnson version if Stormont is not restored soon. This election is about Sinn Féin’s empty seats and the DUP’s empty promises. But it also has to be about an empty building in Stormont. Not one person in Northern Ireland has benefitted from the stalemate in our politics. In 2017, I described the standoff as an arm wrestle that no-one could win – I haven’t changed my mind. For over 1,000 days both the DUP and Sinn Féin have been abstaining from the responsibility of delivering a government for all of our people. Hospital waiting lists have grown longer and longer because they have forced all of us to wait for nearly 3 years for a government. People in the North are at least 48 times as likely to wait more than a year for care as the closest waiting time in Britain. One in four people here are on a waiting list. These are real people’s lives, and these are the real consequences of their failure. What’s worse is that if Direct Rule is imposed, their failure could put the NHS into the hands of Boris Johnson who is threatening to sell it off to Donald Trump in a post-Brexit trade deal. This election is a chance to send those parties a message – we can wait no more – they have failed enough and all of us have had enough. In this election we can vote to break the cycle of an absent government and remove the barriers that are blocking change. Every vote for the SDLP is a vote to get the assembly back, it’s a vote for a politics that lives up to its responsibilities and it’s a vote to once again take up power in this corner of Ireland. Conclusion Having spent the last number of months speaking to people on their doorsteps, I’m confident that they know what is stake on the 12th of December. Never has the old saying been truer – There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen. History doesn’t judge those who don’t turn up at defining moments – it casts a far harsher verdict. It simply doesn’t mention them because they make no difference. You only make a difference by being there. Decisions are made by those who show up. In the next two months, Westminster will decide if we are forced out of the European Union. In the next two months, it will decide and direct our future like never before. Quite literally, there has been no time like the present – and it has never been more important to BE PRESENT. Decisions are made by those who show up. Our pledge to the voters is this. If you show up to elect SDLP MPs, we will show up for you.