Ritchie begins campaign to lead SDLP with unity call


THE NORTH’S Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie said she “unambiguously” believes in a united Ireland when she opened her campaign for leadership of the SDLP yesterday.

Ms Ritchie, the SDLP Assembly member for South Down, said she was mounting her campaign on three pillars, the economy, a shared future, and achieving “in time” a united Ireland.

She is competing with South Belfast MP and MLA and deputy leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell to succeed current leader Mark Durkan who is to step down at the SDLP annual conference in February. Saturday is the closing day for nominations. For anyone else to enter the race at this stage would be a major surprise.

Some 400 delegates will choose the next SDLP leader at the conference in Newcastle, Co Down which is in Ms Ritchie’s constituency. More than 75 people including some Assembly members and former senior figures in the party attended her official campaign launch yesterday.

Among her supporters were South Down MP Eddie McGrady, former agriculture minister Bríd Rodgers from Lurgan, Co Armagh and former MLA and junior minister Denis Haughey from Cookstown, Co Tyrone. Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four also attended to add his support.

Six of the SDLP’s 16 Assembly members have pledged their support: Carmel Hanna from South Belfast; Thomas Burns, South Antrim; Mary Bradley, Foyle; Tommy Gallagher, Fermanagh and South Tyrone; Alex Attwood, West Belfast and Dolores Kelly, Upper Bann.

While all 16 SDLP Assembly members have yet to declare who they will support, Dr McDonnell also has considerable backing in and outside the Assembly, indicating that it could be a very close vote at the annual conference.

Ms Ritchie (51) said she wanted to see a united Ireland in her lifetime. “As SDLP leader, I will work every day to lay the foundations upon which a united Ireland can be built – mutual trust, respect and protection for minorities, common purpose and shared endeavour,” she said.

“I will campaign hard for the establishment of a new all-party commission with a clear remit to agree a modern, inclusive vision for a united Ireland. I will press every party in the South to sign up to the SDLP’s radical thinking on unity,” she added.

In an implicit comment about previous calls for a merger with Fianna Fáil, Ms Ritchie said: “We have a major role to play in national politics on this island. I will also strengthen the positive relationships we have with the main political parties in the South and recognise the realignment that may occur over time. But I will never sell the SDLP out.”

And in a reference to Sinn Féin Ms Ritchie added: “We will not promise Irish unity by 2016 because it is the anniversary of the Easter Rising! Unlike others, we will be credible on Irish unity.”

Ms Ritchie said she would strive to develop the Northern economy through North-South co-operation. “I will engage meaningfully with the unionist community, look them in the eye and tell them they can trust the SDLP and they can trust me,” she added.