Belfast Telegraph

Alasdair McDonnelll to join SDLP leadership race

By Tom Mosely and Noel McAdam

Former SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell has given his clearest indication yet that he will run again for the top position.

His decision to do so would turn the contest into a three-horse race following current deputy Patsy McGlone's move to unseat Margaret Ritchie.

Mr McDonnell appears to be holding back, however, to gauge how much support he may have to run a second time.

Asked whether he intended to put his own hat into the ring, the South Belfast MP said yesterday: "I may very well do, it's quite likely.

"But at this stage, people have to talk to each other on the pros and cons."

The ex-deputy, who was defeated by Ms Ritchie in the contest to replace Mark Durkan last year, has written to the chairs of the party's local branches asking if they will nominate him.

"I am talking to people constantly - councillors, branch people," he said. However, he insisted it was "far too early" to be discussing leadership battles.

"There's no point having new drivers if there are no passengers on the bus," he quipped.

Five branch nominations are required for a candidate to seek the leadership. Just under 350 delegates are eligible to vote in a ballot, which will probably be held at the annual conference in November, unless Ms Ritchie stands down, which she has given no indication of seriously considering.

She became leader early last year, beating the only other candidate - Mr McDonnell - by 35 votes and consolidated her success by retaining the South Down Parliamentary seat held for years by her mentor Eddie McGrady a few months later.

But then the party lost two Assembly seats in this May's election and critics partly blamed Ms Ritchie's style of leadership and lacklustre media performances.

Mr McGlone confirmed he would challenge the SDLP leader at the beginning of August, saying he had been encouraged to do so by friends and colleagues. The mid-Ulster MLA argued the party's message has become "muddled" in recent years.

As deputy leader, he had been expected to be nominated for the party's sole Executive Ministry but Ms Ritchie instead chose Alex Attwood, who switched from Social Development to Environment, and is firmly backing her.

Behind the manoeuvring is the old urban/rural split within the party, with an unresolved internal debate over its future direction.

South Belfast MLA Conall McDevitt and the former leader Mr Durkan have refused to say if they are supporting Ms Ritchie.

Alasdair McDonnell earned a footnote in the history books as the first nationalist MP for South Belfast. Married to Olivia, with four children, his career began over 30 years ago when in 1977 he was elected to Belfast City Council, where he served for almost 25 years.

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