New SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has vowed to restore her party to its former glory and has set her sights on the top job in Northern Ireland politics.
The Social Development Minister defeated South Belfast MP and former deputy leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell for the role following a vote at the party’s annual conference at the weekend.
Ms Ritchie takes on the leadership of the SDLP at a crucial time in Northern Ireland following the agreement by the DUP and Sinn Fein over the devolution of policing and justice powers.
The SDLP, along with the Ulster Unionists, are known to be unhappy about the possibility of the Alliance Party taking up the justice ministry and have accused the two largest parties of “gerrymandering” the selection.
How Margaret Ritchie handles the delicate negotiations over justice devolution are likely to present the first major challenge of her leadership. Former leader, Foyle MP Mark Durkan, stepped down from the role after nine years at the helm.
Following her selection as the first woman to lead the nationalist party in its 40-year history, the South Down MLA marked the historic moment by setting herself and her party an ambitious target.
She told the conference in Newcastle yesterday that she wanted the party to “rise again” and that she wanted to be First Minister.
“I intend to rally the party around a vision that shows how we are different and better than our opponents,” she said.
“I have a serious organisational plan and agenda for change that will make us stronger. I want to bring new people in and I want to give everyone a fair chance to succeed.
“I will lead a party that recognises and rewards performance and teamwork. I want to work with people who, like me, will put the party first.
“Together we can do this and put our party back on top and for the sake of the people of the north we must put our party back on top.”
The race for SDLP leader was neck and neck with bookies placing both contenders with 5/6 odds.
However in the end Ms Ritchie won by 222 votes to 187. She is the first female leader of a major party in Northern Ireland.
Mid-Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone becomes the party's new deputy leader.
In her acceptance speech Ms Ritchie paid tribute to her party colleague Mr McDonnell and urged delegates to get behind efforts to make sure he retained his parliamentary seat.
“I would like to pay tribute to Alasdair McDonnell for we all know what a campaigner he is and we are all behind him as we seek to have him re-elected as MP for South Belfast,” she said.
Dr McDonnell in turn wished Ms Ritchie well in her new role and pledged to support her as she led the party into the future.
On Saturday, outgoing leader Mark Durkan used an emotional farewell speech 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 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.
“That we are not just a party of deep principle, but of clear purpose and ready service as well. A real alternative with radical ambition.”
Among the first to congratulate Ms Ritchie on her new role was Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who attended the conference in Co Down.
He said: “In assuming the office of SDLP leader she follows in one of the most distinguished lines in Irish political history.
“I am sure she will continue that proud tradition into the future.
“I look forward to working with Margaret as we continue to work together for lasting peace and prosperity throughout Ireland.”
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Shaun Woodward also congratulated the new SDLP leader and also paid tribute to the outgoing SDLP leader Mark Durkan, who is resigning as an MLA to concentrate on his role at Westminster.