SDLP Elects Margaret Ritchie as 'Leader' - First Woman to Head Major Party in North

In a close election last month, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) of Northern Ireland elected Minister Margaret Ritchie, 51, as its "leader" to guide the party into the second decade of the 21st century. With her ascension, Miss Ritchie becomes the first female head of a major party in Northern Ireland.

By a vote of 222 to 187, Ritchie, the SDLP's only serving Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, defeated Alasdair McDonnell, one of three SDLP members in the British Parliament, to gain the leadership seat. The election was called as the result of the resignation of the previous "leader," Mark Durkan, who will remain an SDLP member of the British Parliament in London, representing the Foyle constituency.

Now that the leadership responsibility has been bestowed upon this independent, hard-working, and determined woman, Ritchie promises to return the SDLP to its former prominence within the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland. Her job will not be easy.

In her first announcement after her victory at the party's cheering convention, Ritchie stated that it was her ambition to become First Minister of Northern Ireland, which would mean that the SDLP would have to become the North's leading party. A highly unlikely prospect over the short term.

But in a surprise announcement, she moved preemptively into the fray by nominating SDLP's North Belfast Member of the Assembly, Albin McGuinness, as her party's candidate for the new post of Minister of Policing and Security. Since the Alliance Party recently refused the position and Sinn Fein and the Unionists have been having a great deal of difficulty agreeing on anything, Ritchie's aggressive decision gained much publicity.

In a telephone interview with the BIR after her victory, she was asked about her plans to rebuild the SDLP.

"First, I want to attract good new people to our party," she said. "Those that believe in our principles and our areas of difference with the other Northern Ireland parties. Second, I want to strengthen and invigorate our internal organization and its systems. I will stress our party's belief in a strong economy and do everything we can to improve the prosperity of our people."

Ritchie endorsed a lower corporate tax rate for Northern Ireland similar to the one that has attracted much new investment into the Republic of Ireland. "The resulting increased tax revenue will reduce reliance upon block grants from London to run our government. I look forward to not having to go to them each year." She added: "We believe in a shared society with all of us benefitting from a strong economy as an essential part of our desire for a United Ireland."

Alasdair McDonnell, the man Ritchie defeated, also spoke to the BIR: "Perhaps I was too aggressive during the campaign and scared a few people, but I believe firm action is needed to restore the SDLP to its rightful prominence." McDonnell said he is looking forward to the forthcoming British Parliamentary election in his South Belfast district and feels he can win again if he can increase his vote to 38-39 percent of the total. His previous winning election was attributed to a split of the vote between the two Unionist candidates running against him.

Many of us here in Boston have known Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party as the famous John Hume's party and, more recently, as Mark Durkan's party. The SDLP represented non-violent Catholic nationalists who believed in a United Ireland through constitutional government. Formed in 1970, its first focus was on social justice and righting the wrongs perpetrated by the ruling Unionists. The party championed fair housing and fair employment and aligned itself with the Labour Party in the British Parliament.

The SDLP's rival for the Catholic/United Ireland vote is Sinn Fein, which, during the '70s, '80s and into the '90's, believed the use of any means necessary was appropriate and required if real change was to occur. The main difference between the two Nationalist parties was their position on violence and their willingness to use force to achieve their goals. Both, though, are firm believers in a United Ireland and are working hard to join the North and South of Ireland together.

Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed and ratified in 1998, the SDLP has been in decline and Sinn Fein has become more popular. Today, Sinn Fein has 27 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the SDLP has 16. Sinn Fein, the second largest party in the North and the leading Nationalist Party, also elects the Deputy First Minister, currently Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator.

However slowly, Northern Ireland is changing, and though tragic bitterness remains, tedious but discernible progress is being made each month towards a free and open society.

In that spirit, we wish Margaret Ritchie good fortune.