The SDLP was “spooked” into electing Margaret Ritchie as leader amid fears that Fianna Fail was expanding into its heartlands, according to a leaked diplomatic cable.
Party insiders briefed US diplomats on concerns it would become “merely a northern arm of Fianna Fail” were leadership rival Alasdair McDonnell chosen instead.
Officials were also told that Mr McDonnell’s “bull-in-the-china-shop approach” had alienated and discouraged many party colleagues.
The details are contained in a confidential cable, which reported on Ms Ritchie’s appointment as leader in February 2010.
The six-page dispatch was written by the Consul General in Belfast, Kamala Lakhdhir, and includes a profile of Ms Ritchie, analysis of the party’s fortunes and insider briefings on concerns over SDLP strategy.
Ms Ritchie defeated Mr McDonnell by 222 votes to 187 in the leadership ballot.
While Mr McDonnell had pledged to undertake a radical internal shake-up, the cable claims this caused unease within the SDLP.
“The possibility of southern party Fianna Fail making further inroads in SDLP-friendly districts in the North seems to have spooked some among the SDLP’s elected representatives and boosted Ritchie’s candidacy,” it states.
Fianna Fail does not run candidates in Northern Ireland, but is moving towards establishing a greater presence there.
The party has previously discussed a potential link-up with the SDLP, although an alliance has not materialised.
According to the cable, Mr McDonnell privately briefed US diplomats on “electoral mismanagement” and other issues within the party.
He is quoted as saying the SDLP should use better on-the-ground organisation to challenge Sinn Fein on its foreign investment strategy and links to radical socialism, including Fidel Castro and Hamas.
“McDonnell said, however, that he felt thwarted in his desire to pursue a more robust fundraising presence by party traditionalists,” it states.
Mr McDonnell is also quoted describing the party as “existing on the scraps” of John Hume’s legacy. In the document, South Belfast MLA Conall McDevitt is referred to as “a rising star in the party”.