A plan to “lift people out of poverty” will take priority over the SDLP’s “long hard slog” for constitutional change, party leader Colum Eastwood has pledged.
Speaking on Monday at the launch of its manifesto in Dungannon, Co Tyrone ahead of next week’s Assembly election, Mr Eastwood accused Stormont’s two main ruling parties of presiding over “15 years of failure” and “running the place into the ground”.
While insisting the party remains determined to “convince people about a different kind of future” on the island, he said a Border poll was not an immediate concern.
“I want to see constitutional change on this island, I work every day to make it happen, but I’m not living in the clouds,” he added.
Mr Eastwood criticised the focus on the Northern Ireland protocol and an Irish unity referendum by the DUP and Sinn Féin, saying that tackling the cost-of-living crisis was an issue the SDLP had been “screaming about” long before the war in Ukraine led to a hike in fuel and food prices.
During weeks of canvassing, “nobody, not one” voter on the doorsteps had mentioned the protocol or the fight for the First Minister title, he insisted.
“It is within every fibre of our being to resolve the issues of poverty in this community,” he said.
“The reality is that after 15 years of failure, of crisis and walking in and out of government, the two parties who are at the very top have failed this community and they don’t want you to talk about it.”
Central to the SDLP manifesto is a proposal to give at least £200 (€237) to every household in the North — an emergency measure the party lobbied for prior to the election campaign — and a £500 (€592) payment to those families most in need.
On Monday, Sinn Féin announced its pledge to give £230 (€272) to each household. Mr Eastwood suggested that Sinn Féin had “copied” their plan. “We’re well used to that in this party. We call it flattery,” he said.
An extra £1 billion (€1.18 billion) should be allocated to the health service to tackle spiralling waiting lists, while a six per cent pay increase to nurses is also proposed.
Free childcare provision should be increased from 12.5 hours to 30 hours per week due to “astronomical” childcare prices, according to the manifesto document.
Mr Eastwood also confirmed that reports from the ‘New Ireland Commission’ — a civic forum the party founded last year to discuss Irish unity — will not be published until after the election.
“Today’s issues are the issues that are faced by people right now. People who are on waiting lists for years, people who are going out to work and can’t heat their homes. That’s what we’re focussed on,” he added.
“Does that mean that we don’t have long term ambitions for the future of this country? Absolutely not. “We will do the long hard slog in terms of convincing people about constitutional change. Right now, we need a government. There’s £300m (€355m) in Stormont, we want to get that into people’s pockets. “We have a plan for it, we want to make sure we can implement that on day one.”