Election Focus – SDLP

When Margaret Ritchie won the leadership of the SDLP in February, she said: "I have an organisational plan and an agenda for change that will make us stronger."

When Margaret Ritchie won the leadership of the SDLP in February, she told party members:

“I have an organisational plan and an agenda for change that will make us stronger.”

She did so against an electoral backdrop which saw her party maintain its number of MPs at the 2005 election at three, whilst losing two seats in the Stormont elections of 2007, falling to a total of 16 seats; going into the 2010 election, the SDLP are a party under some pressure, with a leader who has been in post for a little over two months.

Just a month after taking office, Ritchie found herself isolated, along with the Ulster Unionists, in voicing fears over the Hillsborough Agreement, devolving policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland institutions.

The SDLP took the step of nominating one of its own MLAs, Alban Maginness, believing that under the complex D’Hondt system, they should have secured the justice minister’s post. In the end, following the election by the Assembly of Alliance Party leader David Ford to the post, the SDLP’s policing spokesman, Alex Attwood, launched a withering attack on the process:

“The devolution of policing and justice will leave a sour taste. Nationalists struggled for years to create equality and achieved it in the Good Friday Agreement but will be denied their entitlement to a seat in government.

As the election enters its second week, the SDLP have further been forced to fend off calls for it to merge firstly with Sinn Fein and then with Fianna Fail. What is more, as the Belfast Telegraph reports, Dr Alasdair McDonnell faces a unionist challenge to his Belfast South seat.

The Irish Independent reports:

“Alasdair McDonnell won last time because of a split Unionist vote. It may not split this time and he has Sinn Fein opposition (SDLP having rejected an electoral pact in Fermanagh) which could decide the issue and provide a gain for one or other unionist party.”

In launching her party’s election campaign last week, Margaret Ritchie mirrored Nick Clegg in calling for a new kind of politics:

“There is a genuine cry going up in Northern Ireland for new politics – not the outdated sectarian bickering of the past – but politics of consensus-building and partnership focused on problem solving.

“And in this election campaign and beyond the SDLP will offer that kind of political leadership.”

To that extent, her party has called for:

• Greater independence from the UK by devolving greater powers to Stormont such as over taxation and welfare, broadcasting and telecommunications, fisheries and pensions;

An all Ireland Environmental Protection Agency and a single Ireland-wide energy regulator;

• Greater efforts to build a “shared society”; and

• A united Ireland, reconfirming their core belief.

At this election, the first under the leadership of Margaret Ritchie, the acid test will be simple – will the SDLP emerge a stronger force as she promised in February?

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