Ex-SDLP MP unapologetic about House of Lords elevation
Margaret Ritchie: ‘I will be reflecting the views of the party in that chamber’
Former SDLP leader Margaret Richie described the House of Lords in 2012 as an ‘anachronistic institution’. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Former SDLP leader and now newly elevated member of the House of Lords Margaret Ritchie is sitting on the reputed grave of St Patrick in Downpatrick musing, a little reluctantly it must be said, on what title she should assume. St Colmcille and St Brigid, so the history goes, also are in the grave.
Baroness Patrick of Downpatrick, perhaps, it is suggested?
She isn’t sure, but says whatever name she takes it will have reference to St Patrick and her home town. “Patrick is the figurehead for reconciliation, he belongs to everybody.”
This day in Downpatrick several people stop to congratulate her, one man going down on bended knee. “Oh, stop,” she laughs.
Neither is she certain what robes and ermine she is expected to wear for future ceremonial occasions in the Palace of Westminster. As for devising her own coat of arms? “I am not interested in that.”
Ritchie is just a little bit uncomfortable about all the pomp and circumstance that goes with being a peer. “I’m not sure what happens; I’ll learn about all the rules in due course.”
Her discomfort also is partly down to her describing the House of Lords in 2012 as an “anachronistic institution”. How does she get around that one? “We all move on,” she says. “We are in uncharacteristic political times. I do believe it should be reformed, and the best way to deal with that is within the Lords.”
But neither is she one bit apologetic. Ritchie, a lifelong politician, lost her Westminster seat two years ago to Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard, having been first elected to South Down in 2010. Before that she was a Northern Assembly member and before that again a local councillor for the Downpatrick area.
Ritchie has got some pretty rough abuse online for her decision. Hazzard didn’t go down that route, but he wondered what sort of “mental gymnastics” she had to engage in to be a Tory appointee to the House of Lords.
She hits back by asserting that if Sinn Féin had taken up its seven seats in the House of Commons it could have virtually nullified the DUP at Westminster and slowed the march of the Brexiteers, wherever they are ultimately going.
“Politics to me is about serving, it is about reflecting, it is about representing. And I believe the House of Lords offers that opportunity,” says Ritchie.
She adds: “Sinn Féin sit outside the House of Commons but are available for interviews. They take their Westminster expenses. The DUP don’t represent the views of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. So urgent action was required. There was a crying need for a nationalist voice at Westminster and that’s what people are saying to me, ‘we now have a voice where the decisions are made’.”
Ritchie acknowledges that being a baroness doesn’t bring as much power and influence as being an MP, as she was for seven years. Still it’s a platform at Westminster, one that Sinn Féin rejected, she adds.
“In these unprecedented political times there were opportunities to counter the British government in the House of Commons, and Sinn Féin failed to do that. They failed the Irish people and they failed their constituents who will be particularly impacted by Brexit.”
Ritchie, who is 61, got final word last weekend of her appointment but had been approached some weeks ago to see if she would be interested. For reasons of confidentiality, she says, she can’t say who sounded her out but that they were “people who were sufficiently concerned that a democratic Irish nationalism point of view was not being considered in the current unprecedented political circumstances”.
In accepting her peerage from former British prime minister Theresa May she realised she was taking a step outside her nationalist tribe.
The last senior nationalist figure to accept a peerage was the late Gerry Fitt. He was made a lord shortly after losing his West Belfast seat to Gerry Adams in 1983. But by then he was estranged from the SDLP which he had led for 9 years from its foundation in 1970.
Resigning SDLP membership
There had been no such sundering between Ritchie and the SDLP. As soon as she made her decision she went to see leader Colum Eastwood.
“He said he understood but obviously the party had a position which I was aware of.” That meant her standing down as a member of the SDLP which opposes such appointments.
And while Ritchie has faced criticism she says little or none has come from former party colleagues. “I am SDLP to the core and I will be reflecting the views of the party in that chamber,” she asserts. “I made clear to Colum that while not a member I would be supporting the party and reflecting the party’s viewpoint because I am a social democrat, a democratic Irish nationalist.”
And moving a little beyond her tribe wasn’t a great test. In 2010 she made a significant bit of history by being the first leader of a nationalist party to wear a Remembrance Day poppy. This was at the war memorial in Downpatrick.
“I did that out of respect, to say that it is okay for nationalist representatives to do that; it was out of respect for those who had died in two world wars. It does not mean you agree with war, I don’t.”
Ritchie has come through a rough patch in the past 19 months. In February last year she was diagnosed with breast cancer, resulting in a mastectomy and months of chemotherapy and radiation. That was eight months after she lost her South Down seat to Chris Hazzard, although she does not believe there is any connection between her illness and what she feared was the end of her political career.
She has the all clear now and is looking in good health. In reality, against facing up to cancer, moving to the House of Lords was not a big decision for Ritchie to take. Politics has been her life and now in dramatic times she is quietly delighted to be back in business.