New SDLP leader sets her sights on top job in North
Published 08/02/2010 | 05:00
New SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has pledged to lead her party to the top job in Northern Ireland politics.
The first woman to take charge of the party in its 40-year history marked her elevation by setting herself and her colleagues an ambitious target.
After beating South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell in the contest to replace outgoing Mark Durkan, the 51-year-old noted that she has risen from the rank and file to leader in three short years.
"You may ask if there's no end to this woman's ambition?" said Stormont's social development minister at the party's annual conference in Newcastle, Co Down. "Well there is -- I want our party to rise again and I want to become First Minister."
Ms Ritchie won the hard-fought leadership contest by 222 votes to 187.
Her victory was met with a rapturous reception from the conference floor, with the party faithful giving the South Down MLA a prolonged standing ovation.
When a degree of order was restored, the party's sole minister in the power-sharing executive made a bold vow to revive the SDLP's flagging fortunes and make it the largest party in Northern Ireland.
The SDLP has been overtaken by Sinn Fein as the main nationalist party over the last decade and now sits as the fourth-largest party in the Assembly.
"Together we can do this," Ms Ritchie said of a potential comeback.
"We can put our party back on top and for the sake of the people of the North we must put our party back on top." She also paid tribute to Mr McDonnell, who she defeated, and urged the party to get behind efforts to ensure he retained his parliamentary seat.
"I know Alasdair is going to retain South Belfast and every one of us must put our shoulder to the wheel to ensure that happens," she added.
The losing candidate wished Ms Ritchie well in her new role and pledged to support her as she led the party into the future.
"Today's Margaret's day and I want to wish Margaret every success in her efforts to move this great party forward," he said at yesterday's conference.
Mr McDonnell (60) had vowed to undertake a radical internal shake-up of the party if he had won.
He said it was clear the majority of the party had felt his proposals to have been too radical or unnecessary.
Mr Durkan, who has stepped down after nine years in charge, used an emotional farewell speech to colleagues to insist that while his party was central to ending the Troubles, it remained vital to building a new future for all.
He said the power-sharing government was being mismanaged by the DUP and Sinn Fein, while the scandal over MPs' expenses eroded public confidence in politicians.
"People are crying out for change. Fed up with all the instability. Frustrated by the lack of delivery. Sceptical about more hype and spin," he told party delegates.
"We have to persuade them that the best antidote to DUP/Sinn Fein failure is a successful SDLP.
"Convince them that we offer a better way forward," he said.
The former finance minister in the Stormont Executive and MP and MLA for Foyle is quitting to concentrate on his role at Westminster.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen offered his warmest congratulations to Ms Ritchie.
"In assuming the office of SDLP leader, she follows in one of the most distinguished lines in Irish political history," said Mr Cowen. "I am sure she will continue that proud tradition into the future."
Last night, the Taoiseach attended the SDLP conference where he paid tribute to the party's outgoing leader.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams also congratulated Ms Ritchie on her election.
"I wish Margaret Ritchie well in her difficult job and I hope this will usher in a new era of constructive politics from the SDLP," he said.