Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Questions over SDLP leadership

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie faces mounting speculation over her leadership

SDLP chief Margaret Ritchie easily won the battle for her own political heartland - but speculation is mounting about a war over her leadership.

The sitting MP for South Down fought off a challenge from Sinn Fein - and a potentially huge psychological blow for her party - to remain the largest force in the constituency.

Despite a disappointing poll for the SDLP across Northern Ireland, the former social development minister increased support by an impressive 4% in her own backyard.

But when her deputy leader Patsy McGlone questioned the direction they were taking as an organisation, rumours abounded of the beginning of a heave from within.

However, Ms Ritchie said: "The leadership is not an issue at all. Quite clearly we have much work to do in terms of organisation. Patsy, as deputy leader, and myself will be having a discussion over next number of days about the best way forward."

While Sinn Fein managed to maintain its share of the vote in South Down, under re-elected Catriona Ruane, the party will be disappointed they could not overtake the SDLP in the constituency.

The big surprise was the astounding performance of Ulster Unionist Party deputy leader John McCallister, who bucked the trend of his party colleagues to slightly increase his support. The DUP's Jim Wells was comfortably returned to Stormont, taking the third seat, with the SDLP's Karen McKevitt and Sinn Fein's Willie Clarke taking the final two.

The SDLP no longer features on the Fermanagh and South Tyrone political landscape after veteran party member and sole candidate Tommy Gallagher lost his seat as the constituency count ended in Omagh Leisure Complex early on Saturday evening.

Although Gallagher, 68, increased the SDLP vote by more than 1,100 on Fearghal McKinney's unsuccessful 2010 Westminster bid he fell 62 votes short of returning to Stormont. He was pipped by Phil Flanagan of Sinn Fein, which had all three candidates elected, with Sean Lynch and Michelle Gildernew, who topped the poll, making it a clean sweep.

Arlene Foster hailed the DUP's two-seat victory after she and Maurice Morrow were returned on counts three and four, noting her running mate had scraped home four years earlier without reaching the quota.

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