Northern Ireland

John Hume's wife backs Colum Eastwood to be SDLP leader

Alasdair McDonnell (left) will face a challenge to his leadership at the SDLP's annual conference in November from the party's youngest MLA Colum Eastwood (right), a former mayor of Derry
Image caption Alasdair McDonnell (left) will face a challenge to his leadership at the SDLP's annual conference from the party's youngest MLA Colum Eastwood (right), a former mayor of Derry

Pat Hume, the wife of former SDLP leader John Hume, has backed Colum Eastwood in his challenge to Alasdair McDonnell for the party leadership.

The election takes place at the party conference in Armagh this weekend.

On Thursday night, BBC NI's The View revealed that Mrs Hume was supporting the younger candidate.

However, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said he had led a "major turnaround" of the party over the last four years and remained very confident he would win.

'Fresh blood'

"I said four years ago we need change and I have been implementing that change," Dr McDonnell told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"You need a combination of youth and experience and I have been bringing in fresh blood."

He said 40% of SDLP councillors elected in the 2014 Local Government Elections were new political candidates.

"That was a major turnaround - a major achievement - nearly half of our people turned over and quite simply, the bigger achievement was 40% of our councillors are now female. That was up from 22%," Dr McDonnell added.

The 66-year-old said he had been "energised" by the leadership contest and felt "very positive" about the vote, which begins at 16:00 GMT on Friday.

"It has given me an extra opportunity to liaise and dialogue, something I'm very good at, networking with the grassroots members across the country," he added.

'Bad elections'

However, his leadership style has been criticised in recent months by a number of high-profile SDLP figures, including former party leader Mark Durkan and ex-deputy leaders Seamus Mallon and Brid Rodgers.

Mrs Hume told Friday's Irish News that she and her husband would be voting for change at the head of the party, however the paper said she "chose not to elaborate on her decision".

Image caption Pat Hume has been married to the former SDLP leader John Hume for 55 years

Mr Eastwood told Good Morning Ulster that the SDLP had "a couple of very bad elections" under Dr McDonnell's leadership and that it was time for a change.

"I have [the support of] people like Seamus Mallon, Mark Durkan and now Pat Hume," the Foyle MLA said.

"When you have people like that, the party membership knows and trusts their judgement and I think they should trust their judgement again."

At 32, Mr Eastwood would be the youngest person to lead the SDLP, if he is elected on Saturday evening.

But he said he had a "long track record" working for the party, and this weekend's annual party conference would be the 18th one that he has attended.

He also dismissed criticism of the timing of his leadership challenge.

"I think if I was putting personal ambition first, I would have waited until after the election but my fear was that I would be leading a smaller party after that," he said.

"I think it would have been reckless not to do it, I think we need to listen to what the public are saying. I don't think SDLP canvassers want to do another election without listening to what people are telling them."

Voting begins at 16:00 on Friday. The result of the contest is expected at about 17:00 GMT on Saturday.

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