Alex Attwood has said he intends to spark a “deeper debate” about the SDLP leaving the Executive to go into opposition at Stormont if he becomes party leader.
Mr Attwood based his pitch for the SDLP leadership yesterday on his wide political experience and long track record in the higher councils of the party.
But afterwards he spoke of opening up a debate on the party’s future that could lead it to the opposition benches.
The Environment Minister revealed that between five and six years ago he had “argued as a point of principle” that the opposition benches were “the best place for us to go in the politics of that time... but a different judgment prevailed at that point”.
Mr Attwood, whose argument was supported by SDLP veterans Eddie McGrady and Sean Farren, raised the issue again with MLAs after the May election. “I told them we had to interrogate this option or we might regret that we hadn’t in six months’ time,” he said.
He intends leading a debate on the option, but said he will not force the issue.
“Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan both said that if there was a big enough issue we could leave Government,” he said.
“That may or may not arise, but I want a deeper debate about whether opposition politics is something that needs to be embedded in the political system in order to make it more dynamic.
“I’m not prejudging that debate, I outlined the arguments for and against it to our MLAs, but I will certainly lead that conversation.”
If elected at the party conference next month, Mr Attwood said he is prepared to work with the three other leadership contenders standing against him to rebuild the party.
“The SDLP needs the talent of everybody including Conall (McDevitt), Alasdair (McDonnell) and Patsy (McGlone) who is in the party leadership current and emerging. I will bring everybody to the table to talk about it, to agree what should be done and then do it,” he pledged
He added: “I believe that I have been tested and proven, and I have the record, authority, toughness, judgment and creativity to lead the SDLP forward.”