SDLP conference: new party leader to be elected this weekend


THE 40th SDLP annual conference opened last night with strident attacks on the Hillsborough agreement by the two candidates who are contesting the party leadership.

Mark Durkan is standing down from the leadership he has held since 2001 to concentrate on representing his Foyle constituency at Westminster.

Social development minister Margaret Ritchie told the conference the deal at Hillsborough was not a new beginning.

“Sinn Féin’s inability to negotiate effectively with the DUP is evident again in the latest deal,” she told conference.

“They have sold out the right of nationalists to have fair representation around the Executive table and they have caved in on parading.

“They have agreed to scrap the Parades Commission, which delivered the slow but steady progress that has been made.”

Ms Ritchie’s opponent, South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell, told the conference the path towards effective governance would be fraught will difficulty.

“There will always be a stigma attached to this process precisely because the DUP and Sinn Féin have agreed to erode much of the principles of equity and fairness hard-fought-for and embedded in the Good Friday agreement.”

He added: “The Executive is totally dysfunctional and will require a massive personality transformation if the DUP ministers and Sinn Féin ministers are to do all that is necessary to create a normal business process.”

The two candidates will make their main leadership campaign speeches later today. Voting will continue throughout the conference and the result will be made known tomorrow.

Mr Durkan makes his final leader’s address at midday.

He is expected to criticise the Sinn Féin-DUP-led Executive and to say that the Hillsborough agreement could unravel because the “recipe for stand-off and instability is still there”.

He is also expected to criticise the Alliance Party, which is expected to name its leader David Ford as candidate for minister for justice when the Assembly votes on an appointment next month.

Mr Durkan will criticise Alliance’s claim as a party of principled opposition and Mr Ford personally, claiming he is “preening” himself for office.

He is also expected to warn the conference of the possibility of an Alliance justice minister in Stormont and an Ulster Unionist minister in charge of security in London if the Conservatives win the next parliamentary election in May.