MARGARET Ritchie MP is to step down as SDLP Leader at the party’s annual conference in November.
Hot of her heels for the post of leader is South Belfast’s Alasdair McDonnell who Ms Ritchie beat in the leadership contest by 35 votes just a year ago. Now the contest for the hot seat in the SDLP has broadened out with Patsy McGlone and the up-and-coming Conall McDevitt also in the ring with Delores Kelly also on the fringes possibly seeking a senior party position.
But while these politicians slug it out, Ms Ritchie will already be hard at work consolidating her South Down Westminster constituency. In breaking the news on BBC last night (Thursday 8th September), Ms Ritchie made no bones about her decision. She seemed at peace with what she had decided to do after a couple of months of serious consideration and will also be stepping down as MLA, concentrating her energies and efforts in South Down.
Party members may have been critical about her media performances or the strategic direction that the SDLP moved in, but it must be said that she did blaze a difficult trail in Northern Ireland male-dominated politics…as a woman politician.
Ms Ritchie also took the position that the SDLP would not form any nationalist alliances with Sinn Féin nor any Irish party. She believed that the SDLP could reaffirm itself with the nationalist voters in the Northern Ireland, but has been judged by the party’s poor performance a the last Stormont election when the SDLP dropped two seats. Despite the attacks on her personal style and approach, despite Wikileaks and political innuendoes, one has to accept too that a certain amount of scapegoating may also be active within the SDLP itself as can happen in any group.
Instead of beating a hasty retreat, Ms Ritchie has therefore served notice on the party giving it two months to engage in a meaningful debate about who should don the leadership mantel. Longer would be exhausting, shorter would be chaotic and damaging. But unless the new incumbent can turn the decline within the SDLP round, it may well be a poisoned chalice, one that previous party leader Mark Durkin has already faced.
Questions in the future too will be raised about the candidates for election? Is SDLP Deputy Leader McDonnell too much of a shaker? Does McDevitt have the experience? Has McGlone got what it takes to unite and drive forward a weakened party? No one is perfect. No-one is the complete package. Least of all in politics.
And in South Down, when the local Constituency Council meets to start the process of selecting a replacement at Stormont for Ms Ritchie, there will be another round of speculation and name dropping in the media as to who may be the successor. Certainly one contender would be current Down District Councillor Eamonn O’Neill who did not make it to the finishing line at the last Assembly election for South Down in the face of a strong Sinn Féin challenge.
Ms Ritchie will continue her work in her relatively safe seat in South Down, a job she has said she is more than looking foward too. Since her days of working with former SDLP South Down MP Eddie McGrady as a research worker she has progressed as a local councillor, MLA, MP, DSD Minister, to become party leader in 2010. It is a considerable achievement.
And now her focus will be on South Down and its many challenges. There is much to be done.