A SPLIT has appeared to have developed within the SDLP in West Tyrone regarding the leadership battle between Alasdair McDonnell and Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood.
Mr Eastwood, who is a former mayor of Derry City Council, confirmed on Monday he will challenge Dr McDonnell’s leadership. Alasdair McDonnell has led the SDLP since November 2011.
The election will take place at the SDLP’s annual conference in November.
The 32-year-old, who is the party’s youngest MLA, commented that an Irish nationalist party cannot be led from Westminster.
He was nominated by nine party branches, including that of Patsy Kelly, the Derg/Glenelly (Sperrin) SDLP Branch.
West Tyrone MLA Joe Byrne has declared his support for the current leader Dr McDonnell while Strabane councillor Patsy Kelly has this week weighed in behind the challenger Colum Eastwood.
Firmly in Dr McDonnell’s corner Joe Byrne denied there is a rift in the party in West Tyrone despite speculation that discord has arisen over whether the party should put forward one or two candidates in the constituency for next year’s Assembly elections.
A source close to the SDLP has stated that Dr McDonnell assured Mr Byrne that the party will only be running one candidate in the next Assembly elections in West Tyrone which will either be himself or his chosen successor Daniel McCrossan, who is also believed to be supportive of the McDonnell leadership.
This, according to the source, overrides the view of the party’s West Tyrone Constituency Council, which feels that the party should run two candidates, one from Omagh and one from Strabane, one male and one female.
However, Joe Byrne said, “There is no split. The definitive position is that the Elections and Organisations Committee decided two weeks ago to run one candidate. I am a member of the executive and that was ratified on Saturday past at the party executive meeting.’
He added, “I always believed that you support your leader. That is my basic principle.
“I supported all previous leaders during their tenure. I am a party man. I respect our party leader no matter who it is.
“Regarding the members in favour of Mr Eastwood, he added, “Obviously different people have different views and see Colum as a young man with a future. He is very articulate and very presentable.
“However Alasdair has worked very hard at rebuilding the party organisationally. He is an experienced knuckle fighter type of politician. I have total faith in Alasdair.”
Meanwhile, Strabane councillor Patsy Kelly has expressed his backing for SDLP leadership challenger, Colum Eastwood.
Citing fresh ideas and a new direction, Cllr Kelly says he knows that Mr Eastwood will make a “great leader.”
“I know Colum very well and he has my 100 per-cent support in his bid for leadership of the party,”
Cllr Kelly said. “He is articulate, energetic and committed to the ideals of the SDLP.”