McDonnell is new SDLP leader

Members of the SDLP today selected Alasdair McDonnell to be their new leader.

It is the second time in in less than two years that the North’s second largest nationalist party held a leadership contest.

McDonnell, a member of the Westminster parliament for South Belfast, defeated the relative youngster Conall McDevitt, who received the second largest number of votes in this afternoon’s ballot.

Also competing was the SDLP deputy leader Patsy McGlone and the sole SDLP minister in the Six County Executive, Alex Attwood.

Upper Bann Assembly member Dolores Kelly was elected the party deputy leader. The ballots of party delegates were taken during the SDLP’s annual conference in Belfast today.

McDonnell will take over from South Down MP Margaret Ritchie after she announced her plan to step down in September. Her decision came after the party suffered further losses and fell to 14 seats in the May election to the Six County Assembly.

From Cushendall, County Antrim, Mr McDonnell worked as a family doctor in Belfast for over thirty years after studying medicine in Dublin. Often abrasive and instinctively a conservative, his power base is Belfast’s Malone Road, one of the North’s wealthiest nationalist areas.

The 62-year-old surprised many by gaining the parliamentary seat of South Belfast from unionist hands in 2005, and succeeded in retaining it last year. However, following proposals by Britain’s Boundary Commission, the seat is set to be eliminated before the next general election.

In his acceptance speech, Mr McDonnell told delegates that he felt emotional at his success which was “the proudest moment of my political life”.

He said that his focus would be to give united leadership to ensure “more votes went into SDLP ballot boxes”.

He added that the other candidates had fought strong campaigns, and that the contest had been “cathartic” and good for the party.

DUP leader Peter Robinson was quick to congratulate Mr McDonnell, saying that he was looking forward to working with him.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said he wished Mr McDonnell well.

“I hope the new leader will display a positive, constructive and forward looking attitude,” he added.

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