Colum Eastwood’s victory in Foyle was a momentous occasion in the history of our politics here. In surpassing even Hume, the founder of the SDLP, Colum now has the weight of a City and history itself on his shoulders.
If his victory is to mean anything then it shouldn’t be used solely as a launch pad to building a revitalised SDLP across NI. This is of course within the remit of every party leader, but in changing hands in 2017, the voters there have demonstrated their hostility whenever their reps get too comfortable on the green benches.
It has been long documented how Derry suffers shocking levels of poverty, deprivation and under-investment. Since the ‘60s there hasn’t been much of a concerted effort to reverse engineer the effects of gerrymandering in the city beyond the abolition of the Londonderry Corporation. Like Belfast it is blighted by divided social housing, while waiting lists continue to grow, table topping schools who export their young never to return and even an interface/peace wall between the Fountain Estate and Bishops Street (without).
The issue that made it into both Elisha and Colum’s literature was the medical school at Magee. I have written about the issue before, the anger over the failure for it to be established on time is acute within the city but it didn’t really pick up much traction in wider NI media coverage (including the fact that the western trust is short of doctors and forced to spend £27m on agency workers mostly from other regions). But when people have had the first-hand experience of waiting lists, once purely academic issues like where to train medics become top priorities in an understaffed health service.
Colum pointed out in a debate how only 20% of those who go away to train or study come back, in a city like Derry this was for a long time taken as given but there is a renewed confidence in the city especially since the City of Culture year when so many under the radar cultural initiatives in the city gained public notice and the all-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil crammed the streets with visitors. It felt like finally we had found our niche, a city brimming with scholastic heritage which could allow creativity to flourish if the university was properly funded (with the promised 10k places) and it was oriented towards the needs of the economy in the entire Western and cross-border region.
Brexit undoubtedly reigns as the great anxiety over the city’s business community, trade union movement and civil society more broadly. At the election count in Magherafelt, DUP councillors surrounded an attentive Gary Middleton MLA, no doubt they will be pouring over every figure to see what this means for his Stormont seat. He came out early in the campaign to speak against the time honoured tradition of Unionists (mostly Waterside based) tactically voting for the SDLP, due to the ‘remain pact’ (that’s not a pact) in North Belfast. But it has seemingly fallen on deaf ears, as elsewhere in NI, there are even now two Alliance councillors demonstrating yet further the diversification of voting habits – something Colum could seriously capitalise on by scooping up this seat or with enough effort Alliance could give them a run for their money.
Sinn Fein have already set the wheels in motion to rebuild their operation in Derry, gone are the days when holding the Ard Fheis in the Millennium forum was enough. They need to present a programme which appeals to a diverse, urban and growing (although slower than in other places) middle class vote in the second city. They will be continually punished on abstentionism and the collapse of Stormont in not just Derry but other urban nationalist areas such as Newry/Armagh and West Belfast (where the vote share for SF all decreased).
The majority of 17,000 puts Colum in a safe position, but lest we forget that they lost the seat by 169 votes in 2017 and that this constituency will make its dissatisfaction heard if it doesn’t start seeing tangible change.
Jay is a Derry native now living in south Antrim and working in Belfast. His writing spans Law, Economics and International relations.
*He writes in a strictly personal capacity*