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On shaky ground: our profile of SDLP's Margaret Ritchie

The fall-out from the Raymond McCreesh playpark row could cost Margaret Ritchie her South Down seat in the general election. That would be a tragedy for an MP steeped in her constituency, writes Alex Kane

When the South Down MLA John McCallister suggested that the SDLP's "problems" over the naming of a playground after IRA member Raymond McCreesh could cost Margaret Ritchie hundreds of "soft unionist" votes, it sent the electoral nerds scurrying off to check the figures.

On paper, he seems to have a point: at the 2010 general election, she had a comfortable 20% margin of victory over Sinn Fein; yet by the 2011 Assembly elections the gap between the SDLP and Sinn Fein had narrowed to just 5%.

But look at the unionist vote in both those elections. In 2010, it was 19.4%, yet in 2011 it was almost 29% - which suggests that some unionists chose to back Ritchie for Westminster (to stop Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane) and then returned to the fold in the Assembly election a few months later (to ensure that the UUP and DUP retained the two seats they had).

So if those "soft unionists" are unhappy with the SDLP's seeming confusion about McCreesh - and unhappy with other decisions, in places like Mid-Ulster, to support Sinn Fein policy on poppies and the primacy of the Irish Language - then they may decide not to back her on May 7.

The odds of winning would still be in her favour, but it could be very tight - and could cost the SDLP an Assembly seat next year.

The loss of Ritchie would be a hammer-blow to the SDLP, especially in a seat that has been one of their electoral "bankers" for decades.

And if Alasdair McDonnell was to underperform in South Belfast (which seems likely, given his serial shootings-in-the-foot and strong competition from Mairtin O Muilleoir and Jonathan Bell), then it's not impossible that the SDLP would nosedive into an irreversible tailspin to the ground.

It isn't exactly soaring at the moment, anyway, so a weak showing, let alone very bad ones in two of the three seats they hold, could be catastrophic in their consequences.

Margaret Ritchie is South Down through and through. She was born in the Old Downe Hospital, a couple of miles from the family home in Annacloy, on March 25, 1958 and she still lives in the labourer's cottage her father, John, lived in when he was a farm labourer.

He and his wife, Rose, became psychiatric nurses, as did her only brother, John: "From an early age, my brother and I had a very clear sense of the importance of caring for others and particularly for those less fortunate than ourselves. This background of a caring and compassionate family and strong work and service ethos greatly influenced me in my choice to become involved in politics."

Her mother came from Co Cavan and most childhood holidays were spent there with her grandparents. Her parents were "quite strict when it came to school and study" and she didn't have any summer, or weekend, jobs until she went to university: her first one being a domestic assistant in Guy's Hospital, London.

She attended St Mary's High School in Downpatrick, then Queen's University to read geography and political science. And, like so many other young nationalists of her generation, it was at university that she became interested in politics and "aware that local politics could change the lives of people within my community, particularly on things like housing rights, which was a huge issue at the time".

Her political career began in 1985, when she was elected to Down District Council, and two years later she was appointed parliamentary assistant and researcher to Eddie McGrady, the SDLP MP for South Down.

In 1996, she was elected to the Northern Ireland Forum (the body set up to facilitate the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement), but didn't stand for the Assembly until 2003, when she replaced McGrady.

In May 2007 she was appointed Minister for Social Development.

"When I took up office, I refocused attention on social and affordable housing.

"I launched the New Housing Agenda in February 2008 - an unprecedented series of initiatives and programmes aimed at tackling homelessness and providing much-needed social and affordable housing, as well as helping people to reach the first step of the housing ladder in Northern Ireland.

"For every year of my tenure as Minister for Social Development, we increased the number of social housing new builds year on year."

In February 2010, she replaced Mark Durkan as party leader, beating Alasdair McDonnell by 222-187 votes.

It wasn't a comfortable majority and it was clear that the party was deeply divided on the sort of strategy required to establish a new role, relevance, purpose and direction for itself.

She consolidated her position a few months later when she succeeded Eddie McGrady as MP, but the rumblings of discontent and briefings against her were never far from the surface. She lacked the gravitas and stature of John Hume and the comfortable-on-his-feet approach of Durkan.

But she was keen on building an alternative to the DUP/Sinn Fein axis: "The SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance need to get our act together to provide that credible alternative. It's a pity that we did not make more progress during the Trimble/Mallon era, but other external political forces were working against us.

"We needed to be working together to ensure that our health, education and infrastructure systems are enhanced and built upon for the benefit of all. I realised that some years ago when I agreed as the then SDLP minister to address a UUP conference on urban regeneration."

But there were some in her party who believed that she needed to be addressing internal, rather than external matters. According to one very senior SDLP MLA, "It didn't matter what our relationship with Alliance and UUP was if we weren't increasing our vote and being seen as a real alternative to Sinn Fein. We needed to be chasing soft Shinners rather than soft unionists."

And while those "soft unionists" would have praised her for her decision, in November 2010, to become the first leader of a nationalist party to wear a poppy, it went down badly with Sinn Fein and even with some in her own party.

Her first election as leader, the Assembly election in May 2011, saw the party lose two seats and drop 1% in the overall vote. Six months later she was gone in what was, to all intents an purposes, an internal coup: replaced by Alasdair McDonnell who, although beating Conall McDevitt on the third count, got only one vote more (187) than he got against Ritchie in February 2010.

Ironically, his subsequent failings as leader did the party huge damage in last year's council and Euro elections, placing his own seat, along with hers, in an electoral danger-zone.

She clearly enjoys being an MP and says she is looking forward to the opportunities that a hung parliament could bring for the SDLP.

She also believes the party has a future "because the people in control at the moment don't believe in a shared reconciled future and they can't move this place forward. I believe that we can position ourselves in a certain direction, as we are the only nationalist party that is serious about reconciliation.

"Whilst we were correct to pursue the full implementation of the [Good Friday] Agreement in all its aspects, including new policing measures, we should also have begun a process of recalibrating our politics following the success of that agreement."

The problem for the SDLP is that its three leaders from 2001 have all failed to halt the decline or reverse the fortunes of the party. Ritchie took a small hit in 2011 and was ousted, yet the work she was doing in the background might have paid dividends had she been given longer.

If she loses her seat in May, it will sound the death-knell for the SDLP.

A life so far

She was born in 1958 in Annacloy and has lived in south Down her whole life

Her parents and brother all worked in psychiatric nursing

She studied geography and political science at Queen’s University, Belfast

She began her political career with Eddie McGrady and has succeeded him in both the Assembly and the Commons

She was leader of the SDLP for just 21 months

She tries to get to the Edinburgh Festival every year

A senior US official once described her as “wooden and stilted”

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