Will the SDLP face a three way leadership contest?

Bad blood is continuing to run in the SDLP leadership challenge, which may spill over into a three-way contest.

Following the news last week that the SDLP’s Deputy Leader, Patsy McGlone was likely to challenge Margaret Ritchie for the leadership of the party at its annual conference in November, the confirmation by McGlone that he will be standing has led to concerns over the damage that the contest could do to the party.

In a statement available on his website, McGlone speaks of his belief that it was time for a change within the party in order to reassert the “proud core values of the SDLP”. He continued:

“I am proud of my Irishness and proud to offer myself as leader of a party which represents an Irishness of inclusivity, regardless of race, colour or creed. These core values, articulated by John Hume and Seamus Mallon, are precisely what attracted me to the SDLP in the first place.

“The SDLP has revolutionised Irish politics. The founding principles of the party are as relevant today as they were during the civil rights campaign. The unity of the people of Ireland, a unity built on trust, along with practical social democracy – being there for people through the good and bad times – lie at the heart of every SDLP member and supporter.

“The way forward for us needs three strategic elements: strong leadership, clarity of message and radically improved grassroots organisation.”

Responding to the formal confirmation that a leadership challenge was on its way, the SDLP’s Environment Minister, the party’s only Minister within the Stormont Executive, Alex Attwood, was clear in his support for Margaret Ritchie’s continuation, with a barbed comment clearly aimed at McGlone. Attwood concluded:

Maybe people who don’t have the electoral strength in their own constituency should be careful about thinking they can do better than Margaret Ritchie.

“Margaret has been tested in a lot of places and came out looking good. Would they come out looking as good?”

Other SDLP MLAs however were not so clear in who they would be likely to support, with Conall McDevitt, dubbed by the Belfast Telegraph as a “close adviser” to Margaret Ritchie, arguing that August was not the best month for the party to be engaging in a full scale debate about its future, a view which seemed to be shared by the Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly.

The BBC meanwhile has reported that the party’s MP for South Belfast, Alasdair McDonnell who lost out to Margaret Ritchie in the 2010 election for the leadership by just 35 votes, is coming under pressure from colleagues to stand as well.

While Ritchie has indicated that she intends to fight to remain leader, writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Noel McAdam outlines that at the centre of the leadership challenge is Patsy McGlone’s anger at being passed over for ministerial office. McAdam writes:

“Mr McGlone was disgruntled when, despite holding the deputy leader’s position, Ms Ritchie passed him over in the share-out of Executive ministries and again nominated Alex Attwood instead, who moved from Social Development to Environment Minister.

“Ms Ritchie appeared to have consolidated her position after the party retained its three Westminster seats in the General Election last year, but then sustained a net loss of two in the May Assembly elections.”

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.