‘Scandal’ of poverty in NI should be top election priority – SDLP leader

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Stormont’s leading parties are using rows about the Brexit protocol, ministerial titles and border polls to distract from the “scandal” of poverty in Northern Ireland, the SDLP leader has claimed.

Colum Eastwood accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of presiding over 15 years of failure as he launched his party’s manifesto for the Assembly election.

The manifesto majors heavily on the cost-of-living crisis, with a series of policy proposals aimed at supporting families struggling with spiralling bills.

The SDLP says it would allocate an emergency payment of at least £200 to every household in the region.

It suggests larger payments for those in most need.

Under the party’s plans, a family with two children eligible for free school meals would receive £1,200 between May and December.

Other proposals include the provision of 30 hours of pre-school childcare per week and a £1 billion investment in the health service over the next three years.

Outlining the manifesto at an event in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, Mr Eastwood referenced the campaign wrangles involving the DUP and Sinn Fein on issues such as the Northern Ireland Protocol, the prospect of a referendum on Irish unity and the potential of the republican party taking up the first minister’s job.

The SDLP had proposed the £200 emergency payment prior to the election campaign.

On Monday, Sinn Fein unveiled a manifesto that included a pledge to allocate £230 to every household in the region.

2022 NI Assembly election
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with candidates at the SDLP manifesto launch at The Junction, Dungannon (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Eastwood suggested his nationalist rivals had “copied” the SDLP – a move he described as “flattery”.

“The social democratic principles that are laid out within this manifesto are the politics that get us out of bed in the morning,” he said.

“And while other people want to talk about protocols and polls, we’re determined to lift people out of poverty.”

He added: “The reality is though after 15 years of crisis and failure and walking in and walking out of government, the two parties that are at the very top have failed this community and they don’t want you to talk about it.

“They don’t want to talk about the issues that are in this manifesto. They want to talk about protocol. Nobody’s ever mentioned the protocol to me in all the conversations I’ve had with voters over the past four or five weeks. Nobody, not one, has mentioned the protocol.

“Nobody’s mentioned who’s going to be first minister, who’s going to be deputy first minister, nobody’s talking to me about ‘we’re going to move this nameplate from here to there and move that one over there’ because they know the offices in Stormont are all pretty warm and the ministers in Stormont are all very comfortable.

2022 NI Assembly election
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon, leader Colum Eastwood and Fermanagh and South Tyrone candidate Adam Gannon at the SDLP manifesto launch (Liam McBurney/PA)

“But they also know that they’re going out and doing a shift every single day and coming home and having to keep their coats on because they’re absolutely foundered in their own homes.

“That’s a scandal in today’s society and no talk of what position somebody’s going to get (at Stormont) is going to fix that problem.”

During the launch, Mr Eastwood was also asked about the status of the SDLP’s link-up with Fianna Fail in the Republic of Ireland.

The parties unveiled a cross-border partnership in 2019 but uncertainty surrounds the future of an alliance that has proved unpopular with sections of both parties.

Mr Eastwood was not drawn on the current status of the link-up but insisted previous engagement with Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin had helped secure one billion euro worth of investment on north south projects through the Irish Government’s Shared Island Fund.

2022 NI Assembly election
Deputy leader Nichola Mallon addresses the SDLP manifesto launch (Liam McBurney/PA)

“That’s the legacy of those conversations and we’re very proud actually that over the next five years you’re going to see real change on the ground across the border and in border communities because of the work that we did there,” he said.

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon also addressed the launch event.

“After 15 years of broken promises and failure to deliver, I can understand why many people believe that change in this place isn’t possible,” she said.

“But with the cost-of-living emergency, people literally cannot afford for politics here not to change.

“Enough is enough. It doesn’t have to be this way and this isn’t as good as it gets.”

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