17/11/2015 Spotlight


17/11/2015

A Stormont deal entitled A Fresh Start is reached. The SDLP also gets a potential reboot, by way of a new leader. Jennifer O'Leary assesses the challenges the party faces.


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Transcript


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This programme contains scenes of Repetitive Flashing Images

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Previously at Stormont...

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..deadlock and political stalemate.

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If Stormont was performing effectively and efficiently,

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you could forgive a lot of its failings.

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It's not. We can't even use the powers that we've got.

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There's no momentum now. Everything is static.

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Nothing's been done.

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There's no objective.

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A stand-off over welfare reform, paramilitaries

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and dealing with the past,

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brought the two leading parties to an effective standstill.

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But today we got a deal,

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yet another attempt to make power-sharing work.

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I know that there will be those from other political parties

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who will say that this is a two-party agreement.

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They say that as if it's a bad thing.

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We have attempted to reflect their comments as well as our own views

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in the agreement that has been reached.

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This agreement represents an opportunity for a new start,

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an opportunity which we must all grasp.

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This is a good day for Northern Ireland, and it marks a fresh start

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for Northern Ireland's devolved institutions.

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Ten weeks in the making but only a partial deal...

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..the vexed issue of dealing with the past put on ice.

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CHEERING

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The SDLP had spent the weekend electing a new leader,

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their youngest ever.

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No party at Stormont has taken greater pride

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in the Good Friday Agreement and the institutions it created

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than the SDLP.

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But neither have any of the main parties seen such a decline

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in their share of the vote.

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Power-sharing today has got a fresh start,

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but the SDLP now fear they find themselves on the outside looking in.

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We were given 45 minutes to look at this supposed deal,

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and then we were asked to go into an executive meeting and support it.

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Tonight on Spotlight, we assess how the party

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widely regarded as the architect of power-sharing,

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moved to the margins,

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and ask if their new young leader can reverse the trend.

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Colum Eastwood,

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32 years old and SDLP activist

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while still a teenager.

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We've had stumbling blocks in the past and we've always got over them.

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This autumn he launched a daring bid to topple his party leader

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and seize control.

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For his supporters it was a chance to halt over a decade of decline

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for the party.

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It will take time. I have that time.

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Join with me in making this party win again. Thank you.

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APPLAUSE

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A fresh face, certainly,

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but he faced a formidable task to unseat Alasdair McDonnell,

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a man who time and again defied the odds and pulled victory

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from the jaws of predicted defeat.

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McDonnell, Alasdair -

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9,560.

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CHEERING

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For the young challenger, momentum would be key.

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Last Wednesday morning,

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Eastwood headquarters, Londonderry.

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The leadership election was just days away and the strain was showing.

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-Hi Jennifer.

-Hi, Rory. Nice to meet you.

-Good to meet you.

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-How are you doing?

-Rory Farrell helped run the campaign.

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So, where's Colum at the minute?

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-Colum is next-door making phone calls.

-OK.

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He's been doing that for a couple of weeks now,

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so it's going to be close.

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But he's put the work in in the last load of weeks

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and he's made a lot of phone calls, and he's met a lot of people,

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and we've been travelling throughout the north,

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-and Colum...

-Oh, he's here.

-..is ready to lead that change.

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-Hello, Colum.

-How are things?

-Nice to meet you. How are you doing?

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-How's the campaign going?

-It's going well.

-Yeah.

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So, is this the centre of operations for most of the phone calls?

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No, this is my constituency office.

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The challenger set out to try to sell his vision

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to the party faithful face-to-face.

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But some were refusing to meet.

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I've got more phone calls to make, lots more phone calls.

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I think we've spoken to almost everybody or we've at least tried to speak to everybody.

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We've sent literature to everybody. We've sent e-mails to everybody.

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We're just trying to ensure that the people who've said

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they're voting for us, are going to vote for us.

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We've got a big team working with us.

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It's not just me.

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Right, so you've got the Castlewellan tonight.

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You're meeting Laura King in a couple of branches in South Down.

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It's the sharp end of politics, a plot to topple the leader.

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There's a few e-mails on there that need...

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Eastwood spoke of his determination to run a positive campaign.

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But really it was a coup.

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The contenders said it was a chance to shake up the party,

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but some observers have been less than electrified.

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You never hear steel clashing on steel, you know,

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as ideas are argued out.

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What you hear is putty plopping on putty.

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It isn't going to damage anybody, is it?

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But it's not going to enlighten anybody, it's not going to...

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The SDLP arguments don't produce sparks with a chance of catching fire.

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So there'll be quite a tense party conference at the weekend, will there?

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It'll be exciting!

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It'll be tense for Colum and Alasdair

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-and their respective teams.

-Yeah.

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But for the wider membership, it'll be really interesting.

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There's a lot about motions and debates,

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but there's a contest here to decide the future of the party.

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You look tense.

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I look tense? Oh, sorry.

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-LAUGHTER No!

-I'm totally relaxed about it all!

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The next few days would be crucial.

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Colum Eastwood and his team, they really have been

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on the phone the whole time.

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And I suspect that they are more tense than they may be admitting to,

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because it really is a struggle and nothing is ever certain in politics.

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The leadership election opened up a debate that had been simmering

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within the party for years.

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Once the largest nationalist party,

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its vote has been in decline for over a decade.

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To some observers the reason is clear,

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the SDLP is having something of an identity crisis.

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The ideological identity of the SDLP is not entirely clear to me.

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There's some good, solid people in the SDLP...

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Of course, they've got nothing distinctive to offer anybody.

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They are not Sinn Fein, they are not associated with violence,

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they are not Unionists, so what are they? What are they?

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They're far too respectable, far too timid.

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And you know, far too uncertain of its place in Northern society.

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And there's more bad news.

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A leaked internal report recently predicted even more losses

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in the next Assembly election.

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The image persists of an ageing rock band with

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their best work behind them.

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-BONO:

-We want them to join together...

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..with us...

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-..on this stage!

-CROWD ROARS

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The party enjoyed a starring role in helping to bring all sides to

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a power-sharing arrangement, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

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CROWD ROARS

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Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble and the SDLP's John Hume

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were celebrated for delivering power-sharing.

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But it was all downhill from there.

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The SDLP are at a very low ebb.

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They have lost since 1998 roughly about 90,000 votes.

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Roughly a third of that has gone to Sinn Fein, and the rest,

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from what we can see from the data, are just staying at home.

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So apathy is really the SDLP's biggest problem at the moment.

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Sinn Fein has since overtaken the SDLP.

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A failure to attract a younger vote just one of the reasons for decline.

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I think once the Good Friday Agreement was agreed,

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once devolution was back up and running, it was kind of seen as job done.

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That was it.

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But the SDLP has hit a problem some say is affecting

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all parties at Stormont.

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Having achieved power-sharing, what next?

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Central to the party's woes,

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the criticism that the party still labours under the shadow

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of the generation of party leaders who built peace.

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I had this taken the first election. That was 1969.

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We were married in 1960.

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(55 years ago!)

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'John Hume, who is well known in the houses that he visits.

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'He has, in effect, become the leader of the civil rights campaign in Derry.'

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Pat canvassed on the streets with her husband.

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The man who became leader, Nobel Laureate

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and driving force of the SDLP, John Hume.

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I hope the committee, as a body, has among its membership,

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people of every political persuasion.

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The chairman of...

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'He stepped down as leader in 2001.'

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The Liberal party have members...

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The Labour Party have members...

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'He still lives in Derry with Pat.'

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The legacy he created dominates the party to this day.

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And that's when they had the big sit-down, in Laburnum Terrace.

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Within 20 minutes or so, a group of Saracens came along

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and the major got out and he said, "Up!"

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And John said, "No! I'm not moving."

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And with that, he just turned to the Saracen and said, "water canons".

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Hume was a member of the Catholic community, but had been

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discriminated against and largely excluded from government.

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In 1970, he and a handful of campaigners founded the

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Social, Democratic and Labour Party.

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But Northern Ireland was already sliding deeper into conflict.

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SCREAMING AND YELLING

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GUNSHOT

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I feel very sad when I look back and I think of the years

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down through the '70s, for example, during the power-sharing Executive.

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Power-sharing was in place, One Man, One Vote was in place.

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The wherewithal to gain more by nonviolence was there.

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And yet, the IRA continued violence...

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The story could have been different.

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GUNFIRE

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It was 24 years before anything else could happen.

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24 years of mayhem.

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GUNFIRE SHATTERING GLASS

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Almost all the social advances that have been made in the last 40 years

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were made in the days of the civil rights movement.

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The end of gerrymandering,

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the institution of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

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Legislation against the religious discrimination,

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the abolition of the B-Specials, that disarming of the RUC,

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all of those things were met by the early '70s.

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None of them was achieved,

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none of them was achieved by the armed struggle of the IRA and yet,

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and yet, at the end of the day, it is the IRA

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and its political wing which has reaped the benefit.

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# We shall overcome... #

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Central to the SDLP's problems is the view that the party has effectively

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lost ownership of an equality agenda, the fight for civil rights.

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# Oh, deep in my heart... #

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But it's a cause that has brought electoral reward

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for its rivals in Sinn Fein.

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Sinn Fein are rewriting their past.

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And that is why they've convinced quite a lot of people that they've fought...

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That the IRA fought for 30 years in the name of equality and it didn't.

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It fought for a united Ireland, it made a united Ireland impossible

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for the foreseeable future.

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And it now rewrites that in order to tell a good story.

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Any political party can espouse or take late viewpoints.

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They have perhaps been more effective

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in advancing the equality agenda

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in a number of spheres, not just in the constitutional sphere

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in terms of the Irish-versus-British identity

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and constitutional issues, but also in other, what might be deemed

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progressive, "issues", in terms of the advancing

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the rights of the lesbian and gay community.

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Sinn Fein have had a more singular, progressive voice on that,

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whereas the SDLP have been somewhat confused.

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'Ivan Cooper, Chairman of the Derry Citizens' Action Committee,

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'handed in the petition and then led the campaigners across to the

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'House of Commons to give MPs their views on events in Londonderry.'

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Ivan Cooper helped found the SDLP in 1970.

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A party grandee, he looks back with regret at mistakes and missteps.

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What do you think went wrong for the SDLP

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in terms of the party's strengths?

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We seem to have drifted from leadership to leadership crisis.

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At the end of the day,

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the party failed to continue attracting new membership

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and for any political party to survive,

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it's essential that new members are attracted.

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And we simply got lazy. That was what happened, basically.

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Right, you better watch they don't put a customer through to me.

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The DUP and Sinn Fein have moved in on the middle ground to

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a fair extent so I mean...

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I mean, you know, the SDLP,

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like any other political party,

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it has to carve out its ground.

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Clearly, it can't just rest on its laurels from the past.

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-She soldiered with me 45 years ago.

-I did indeed.

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It's showtime at the SDLP party conference.

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And D-Day for the Eastwood challenge.

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So, members are casting their vote for the leadership election

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in a room just in here.

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We're only allowed to go this far.

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There is less than ten minutes to go.

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There's a lot of huddled conversations taking place around

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the hotel and the atmosphere, as I would describe it, is quite tense.

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Colum Eastwood's supporters are optimistic that their man will win.

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We've faced huge challenges

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and we've had a very difficult time

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and I think young Colum Eastwood

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is very courageous

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because it would be much easier to stand back and, you know,

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let things drift and then take over.

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Just looking around at the conference, there's more people

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over 40 than under, so how is the SDLP going to attract younger voters?

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I have to say I do think there's a good mix

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and I'm definitely not somebody that subscribes to the cult of youth.

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We just maybe need to clear some of the blockages

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that mean that a lot of the young talent around the party

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isn't necessarily in councils and in the assembly just yet.

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CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

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Despite the talk of being united,

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there's still an undercurrent of a family

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that's trying its best to get on.

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I would now like to make the announcement

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of the leader of the SDLP

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and that is Colum Eastwood.

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CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

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We have to be honest.

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Somewhere along the course of the road,

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our conversations have drifted.

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They've centred too much on us as a party

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and not enough on the fate and future of the country.

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That stops here and now.

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CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

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Bridging the gap with Sinn Fein remains a key objective.

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It's a rivalry and an electoral threat to the SDLP

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that has its origins in the 1980s.

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The ritual clanging rang through the streets of Belfast.

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Whistles and car horns were added to the clamour.

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CLANGING

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1981 - a watershed year for both parties.

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GUNSHOTS

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The IRA's campaign of violence continued

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but inside the Maze Prison, a dirty protest was coming to an end

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as a number of Republican prisoners began a hunger strike.

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They had to play another card and, unfortunately,

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I hate saying this, it was the deaths of young men in prison...

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..on hunger strike.

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You had the trauma in the ground.

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Funerals. Drumbeats.

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Rosaries being said on the side of the road.

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And election campaigns...

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..followed.

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And that became a very difficult period for us.

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Over that summer, ten hunger strikers had died.

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GUNSHOTS

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And the outpouring of grief

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further widened a bitter gulf between the SDLP and Sinn Fein.

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The hunger strike gave moral authority of a sort to Sinn Fein.

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Here were these people dying for what they believed in.

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They were actually dying for a united Ireland,

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they were not dying for power-sharing of Stormont.

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The SDLP, they were denounced as the stoop-down-low party and so forth.

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They were catcalled and sneered at on the streets.

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I mean I was there when that happened, regularly,

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on a regular basis.

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THEY CHANT

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They were martyrs at that time

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and there was a great deal of enmity between Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

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So some of it was not terribly well handled by us

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and it was nasty, some of that stuff.

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It was a bad mistake.

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We demonised them...

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instead of...

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The public were sympathetic towards them, we demonised them.

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That was a mistake, undoubtedly.

0:21:530:21:56

Sinn Fein was now an electoral force.

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It changed the game,

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prompting Irish and British governments

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to seek new political solutions.

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I was involved at the time.

0:22:130:22:16

Garret FitzGerald was very concerned

0:22:160:22:19

as Taoiseach that Sinn Fein

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might overtake the SDLP electorally in the north

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while the campaign of violence was continuing

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and that they would then turn round

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and say that the IRA campaign of violence had an electoral mandate,

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at least from the nationalist community in the north.

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Despite the electoral support for Sinn Fein

0:22:470:22:50

in the wake of the hunger strikes,

0:22:500:22:52

it has only been since the Good Friday Agreement

0:22:520:22:56

that it overtook the SDLP as the largest nationalist party.

0:22:560:23:00

For some, John Hume's efforts to forge a path to peace

0:23:040:23:08

came at a cost to his party.

0:23:080:23:11

Do you think the SDLP were used to bring Sinn Fein

0:23:130:23:19

and the IRA in from the cold?

0:23:190:23:21

I think, undoubtedly, that happened.

0:23:210:23:24

And when did it begin to dawn on some SDLP members that that was happening?

0:23:240:23:30

It dawned on us too late because the damage had already been done.

0:23:300:23:35

John Hume appeared with Gerry Adams on a televised programme

0:23:380:23:43

in the United States.

0:23:430:23:45

That was the moment that I knew that...

0:23:480:23:52

we were being used.

0:23:520:23:54

They used John to validate their own position.

0:23:570:24:03

I think it was shabby.

0:24:030:24:06

Shabby in the extreme.

0:24:060:24:08

Hume remains a hero for the SDLP for his work in negotiating a peace

0:24:090:24:14

and finding agreement with unionists and republicans

0:24:140:24:18

but the opinion persists that the agreement sowed the seeds

0:24:180:24:23

of Sinn Fein's growth at the SDLP's expense.

0:24:230:24:27

I get very tired of the Irish insistence

0:24:270:24:31

on having heroes and villains all the time.

0:24:310:24:33

There aren't any heroes and villains in such stark terms.

0:24:350:24:39

John Hume was a brave man who stood up against violence

0:24:390:24:44

and he was a very clever man

0:24:440:24:47

and he did wear himself out in trying to achieve,

0:24:470:24:51

for constitutional nationalists, what he thought was right for them.

0:24:510:24:54

I also believe that he really handed nationalism over to Sinn Fein

0:24:570:25:02

because he was so certain that he was cleverer than Gerry Adams.

0:25:020:25:07

He thought he was leading Sinn Fein, he thought he was using them,

0:25:070:25:11

he thought he was converting them and they used him.

0:25:110:25:14

And that's why the SDLP was destroyed.

0:25:140:25:17

Do you think that it's patronising to suggest that narrative?

0:25:180:25:22

That it was the SDLP who brought Sinn Fein

0:25:220:25:24

and the republican movement in from the cold?

0:25:240:25:27

I think it's more self-pitying than patronising

0:25:270:25:29

and part of the problem for the SDLP is

0:25:290:25:32

if they hold on to that view, it means they are crucially failing

0:25:320:25:36

to self-analyse where they have gone wrong for the past 20 years.

0:25:360:25:40

They're not asking the uncomfortable questions that they need to ask

0:25:400:25:43

which is how have they lost the confidence

0:25:430:25:45

of the Northern nationalist community

0:25:450:25:47

and what do they have to do to regain it?

0:25:470:25:50

This is it, this is the agreement.

0:25:530:25:55

-You have it in your hand.

-I have it in my hand.

0:25:550:25:57

Yes - 71.12%.

0:26:010:26:05

CHEERING

0:26:050:26:07

The Good Friday Agreement is considered

0:26:070:26:10

a high point for the SDLP but how things have changed.

0:26:100:26:14

17 years on, the sparkle has faded.

0:26:210:26:25

The Agreement, and those that have followed it,

0:26:250:26:29

have remained wedded to a system of government

0:26:290:26:31

that ensures representation from both sides of the community.

0:26:310:26:34

But others believe it has merely reinforced the sectarian divide.

0:26:390:26:43

Did the Agreement, in its original form, not formalise sectarianism?

0:26:460:26:51

It does, it does to an extent, there's no question of it,

0:26:510:26:54

but given where we were,

0:26:540:26:56

you were not going to get nationalists to agree to sit

0:26:560:27:01

in a devolved administration in parliament buildings

0:27:010:27:05

unless they felt confident

0:27:050:27:07

that they had their hand on the steering wheel along with us.

0:27:070:27:10

You've a unionist designation, you've a nationalist designation,

0:27:100:27:13

and that was the way things were then and, unfortunately,

0:27:130:27:18

it's the way things are now.

0:27:180:27:21

But we do not have a track record of success

0:27:210:27:26

to demonstrate to people that there is an alternative.

0:27:260:27:30

With a deal at Stormont comes an unofficial start

0:27:390:27:42

to next year's Assembly elections.

0:27:420:27:44

But for all nationalist parties,

0:27:480:27:50

the timing could not be more significant.

0:27:500:27:52

An election beckons in the Republic too

0:27:570:28:00

and it is Sinn Fein that will effectively be standing

0:28:000:28:04

in all Ireland elections in 2016, the anniversary of the Easter Rising.

0:28:040:28:10

There's a lesson for the SDLP today because, again,

0:28:100:28:13

in terms of challenging Sinn Fein,

0:28:130:28:16

it is Sinn Fein's all-Ireland stature

0:28:160:28:18

that is something that the SDLP has not been able to compete with

0:28:180:28:22

and that has continued to ensure that Sinn Fein remains

0:28:220:28:25

far in advance of the SDLP in the minds of many Northern nationalists.

0:28:250:28:29

We could be just months away from the time that Sinn Fein

0:28:320:28:35

could secure a place around the cabinet table in the Dail,

0:28:350:28:40

which would be a remarkable advance for, not just Sinn Fein,

0:28:400:28:44

but for Northern nationalists in terms of their vision

0:28:440:28:47

of being a part of the all-Ireland country.

0:28:470:28:50

How close or far away we are from a united Ireland,

0:28:540:28:58

if ever, is anybody's guess.

0:28:580:29:01

# We Shall Overcome... #

0:29:030:29:05

But once again, it is the relationship between nationalists

0:29:100:29:14

and the Northern state, past present and future...

0:29:140:29:18

..that will spell success or failure for not only the SDLP

0:29:200:29:24

but even Stormont itself.

0:29:240:29:27

Colum Eastwood.

0:29:300:29:32

CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

0:29:320:29:35

For the SDLP,

0:29:380:29:40

the party that worked for so long to establish power sharing,

0:29:400:29:43

today's deal is a sign of just how far it has fallen.

0:29:430:29:47

Thank you.

0:29:470:29:50

Thank you all very, very much.

0:29:500:29:52

Negotiations to resolve our political deadlock were led by the DUP

0:29:520:29:56

and Sinn Fein, the details later shared with the smaller parties,

0:29:560:30:01

the SDLP included.

0:30:010:30:04

..30 and more years.

0:30:040:30:06

APPLAUSE

0:30:060:30:09

Meanwhile, back at Stormont,

0:30:130:30:15

the SDLP's former partners in government,

0:30:150:30:19

the Ulster Unionist Party, have now entered opposition.

0:30:190:30:24

Victims, some claim, both of the system

0:30:240:30:27

and of those who were once power-sharing

0:30:270:30:30

at Stormont's most trenchant critics, Sinn Fein and the DUP.

0:30:300:30:35

They have come to dominate the structure

0:30:360:30:38

that they didn't negotiate.

0:30:380:30:40

Look at the problems in health, look at the problems in education,

0:30:400:30:44

look at our problems in manufacturing,

0:30:440:30:46

and what are we simply doing?

0:30:460:30:47

We're still arguing the toss from 1998

0:30:470:30:53

instead of focusing on those issues.

0:30:530:30:56

Not so say the DUP and Sinn Fein.

0:31:000:31:03

They say today's deal is literally a fresh start.

0:31:030:31:07

Tonight, the SDLP has told Spotlight

0:31:090:31:12

they are now considering whether they can support today's deal

0:31:120:31:16

but say, on first reading, it's very unlikely.

0:31:160:31:19

All other parties have also expressed concerns.

0:31:190:31:23

The question remains for the SDLP and power-sharing -

0:31:250:31:29

what next?

0:31:290:31:31

A Stormont deal entitled A Fresh Start is reached. The SDLP also gets a potential reboot, by way of a new leader. Jennifer O'Leary assesses the challenges the party faces as power sharing is saved.


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