SDLP 'will not merge' - Ritchie
The SDLP remains committed to a united Ireland but will not merge with fellow nationalist parties to achieve it, Margaret Ritchie has made clear.
In her first speech to party conference as leader, the South Down MP nailed any suggestion of a political alliance on either side of the border.
Under her predecessor Mark Durkan, the party had flirted with the idea of joining forces with one of the three main parties in the Republic of Ireland - Fianna Fail, Fianna Gael and Labour.
During her leader's address to delegates in the Ramada Hotel in Belfast, the former Stormont social development minister took the opportunity to hammer any talk of a merger.
She acknowledged some members were concerned that Sinn Fein had attempted to steal the SDLP political clothes and that the party did not organise on an all Ireland basis.
"We have heard various suggestions about how we can put this right - all sorts of mergers and alliances - and even the suggestion of a single nationalist party in the north," she said. "I have recognised that in the long term there may well be significant political realignment on this island and the SDLP may well be part of it," she said.
"But we are not at that point yet. Also, any merger with a major southern party would effectively mean the end of the SDLP and I believe with that, crucially, the disappearance of the unique brand values we bring to Irish politics. So we have ruled it out for now."
While insisting the SDLP maintained friendly relations with the three parties in the Republic, her antipathy for Sinn Fein was clear as she rejected the concept of a northern link up.
Insisting they had little in common apart from their nationalism, Ms Ritchie slammed Sinn Fein policy on the economy and community integration, and poured scorn on its strategy to achieve Irish unity.
"We are a progressive party, they are still a protest party," she said of the republicans. "On jobs and the economic welfare of our people we have serious ideas. They have not. On building a better society for our children we have genuine commitment - they want the division to continue. And on Irish unity we are credible and they are still waving flags."