SDLP elects new leader
SDLP elects new leader

Margaret Ritchie won the leadership of the SDLP at the weekend, beating her sole rival, South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell by 222 votes to 187.

The result of the four-month election battle to fill the position vacated by Mark Durkan was announced on the third day of the party’s annual conference.

The election was fiercely contested with some bitter divisions visible between the two camps and evidence of some lingering resentment over the manner of Mr Durkan’s departure from the leadership after eight years.

Dr McDonnell had fought his campaign on a platform of thorough reorganisation of party structures. But he admitted too many delegates found his plans “either too radical or not necessary”.

Ms Ritchie called for party unity and pledged to turn around the party’s electoral defeats of recent years. “This is a special moment for me and also a deeply humbling one,” she told conference. “I will put my heart and soul into this and I will never let you down. I have a daunting record to live up to. Things will be different.

“My speeches won’t be as good but they will be shorter. The people will possibly be different, I want to bring people in. I want to give everyone a chance to succeed. Everyone starts with a clean sheet with me,” she vowed.

The SDLP has also chosen Mid Ulster Assembly member Patsy McGlone as deputy leader. He was elected unopposed.

Ms Ritchie was nominated by her then party leader Mark Durkan for the Six-County Executive in May 2007.

She took the post of social development minister and, thanks to the Assembly mechanism for sharing out ministerial positions, is currently the only member of her party with an Executive seat.

Under strong pressure she withdrew one million pounds of public money for unionist paramilitaries after UDA violence in Carrickfergus, County Antrim and Bangor, County Down. She was fiercely opposed in doing so by DUP leader Peter Robinson, who accused her of breaking Executive rules.

A High Court judge later ruled she was wrong to do so, because she had not followed the proper procedure, and quashed the decision. However, the controversy earned her significant credit within her own party and laid the foundations for her party leadership bid.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams congratulated Margaret Ritchie on her election as SDLP leader. Mr Adams said:

“I wish Margaret Ritchie well in her difficult job, and I hope that this will usher in a new era of constructive and forward looking politics from the SDLP.”

However, the outgoing SDLP leader Mark Durkan was severely critical of Sinn Fein and the DUP over their decision to elect a new justice minister by a vote in the Assembly rather than using the d’Hondt mechanism used for sharing out Executive seats and which would have given the SDLP its second ministry.

“Sinn Fein have connived with the DUP to circumvent d’Hondt,” he said. “Changing the rules to deny a due outcome, to discriminate against a nationalist party and confer patronage and undue power on a pro-union party used to be called gerrymandering. Today Sinn Fein call it ‘historic progress’ and ‘the best agreement of all’.”

He also criticised the small unionist Alliance Party which is tipped to provide the new minister for justice.

Commenting on attacks over the weekend at the SDLP conference on the recent Agreement, Sinn Fein Assembly group leader John O’Dowd said it was disappointing that the SDLP should use their annual conference as a platform to “share the ground held by rejectionist unionists like Jim Allister in criticising an agreement which has been welcomed widely by ordinary citizens.

“Sinn Fein want to work with the SDLP and the other parties in the Executive in delivering for communities. Unfortunately in recent years the SDLP have instead been more interested in standing on the sidelines and sniping as Martin McGuinness and others did the heavy lifting.

“Judging by the tone of the SDLP conference this weekend it seems that the policy of negative politics, self exclusion and a semi-detached involvement in the Good Friday Agreement political institutions is set to continue.”

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