Northern Ireland

Colum Eastwood: Ten-year rise to SDLP leader

Colum Eastwood Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Colum Eastwood joined the SDLP in 1998 and became Derry's youngest ever mayor in 2005

Colum Eastwood's ascension to leader of the SDLP marks a meteoric rise.

The 32-year-old has gone from councillor in Londonderry to party leader in just ten years.

In the course of the leadership contest, Mr Eastwood attracted the support of party luminaries and seasoned MLAs alike, with Brid Rodgers, Alex Attwood, Mark Durkan and former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon all backing the Foyle MLA.

With the help of that heavyweight support, the new leader belied his relative inexperience to depose of Alasdair McDonnell, a veteran of many elections during a political career which has lasted several decades.

Mr Eastwood has become the joint-youngest ever person to lead one of Stormont's five main parties.

However, he now faces an even bigger challenge - to unite and grow the party to challenge Sinn Féin.

Momentous year

He joined the SDLP in 1998, citing the Good Friday Agreement and leadership of John Hume as the inspiration.

In 2005, he was elected to Derry City Council and five years later, aged 27, became Derry's youngest ever mayor.

It was to be a momentous year for the city.

Just a week after he accepted the chain of office, the Saville Report into Bloody Sunday was published.

The report, along with Prime Minister David Cameron's words that the killings were "unjustified and unjustifiable", led to scenes of jubilation for families of the victims and crowds of onlookers in Guildhall Square.

Mr Eastwood later described it as "an iconic moment" for the city.

Later in 2010, there was more celebration when it was announced the city would be the UK's first City of Culture in 2013.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The Foyle MLA faced criticism when he carried the coffin of a friend who was buried in a paramilitary-style funeral in 2012

It was not long before Mr Eastwood moved from the mayor's office to Stormont - he was elected as an MLA for Foyle in 2011.

His rising reputation had not gone unnoticed and four months after the election he was nominated to stand as the SDLP's deputy party leader.

Controversy

However, citing a desire to focus on constituency issues, Mr Eastwood turned the nomination down.

Four years later, and with more experience as an MLA, he announced his intention to stand against Dr McDonnell in September.

He said that the challenge was "not personal" against the current leader, but that politics needed "a new generation".

Despite his confident pitch for leadership, the past four years at Stormont have not been free of controversy.

He faced criticism in 2012 for his decision to carry the coffin of a friend, who was buried in a paramilitary-style funeral.

Mr Eastwood said he acted in a personal capacity in carrying the coffin of Seamus Coyle and again defended his position when questioned on the day before the leadership election.

"It would have been easier politically for me not to carry the coffin but I was at the funeral for a friend," he told Good Morning Ulster.

"I think people understand that in our community, you go to funerals and you carry coffins. And you try to reach across the community as well."

As the new leader of the SDLP, Mr Eastwood will now have to prove his ability to reach out not only across the community but also to those disillusioned with the state of play at Stormont.

"I'm fed up losing," he told supporters when he launched his bid for the leadership in September.

He has won this round but the young leader will be hoping his personal winning streak will help carry the SDLP through next year's elections and beyond.

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