Margaret Ritchie 'is ready to quit as leader'
Critics of SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie have said she may be considering her position.
She has been avoiding the media since returning from holidays on Achill Island last Sunday.
Said one senior critic: "Margaret needs space and time to consider her position, that is why she has been lying low."
He hinted she may stand down early next month, after just over a year as leader.
If she continues in post she faces a challenge from Patsy McGlone, her deputy, at November's party conference.
Dr Alasdair McDonnell, who contested the leadership last time, may run again. He is currently discussing the future direction of the party with colleagues.
Since returning from Mayo, she chaired a political strategy meeting at SDLP headquarters and attended the opening of new offices for Karen McKevitt, a fellow SDLP MLA.
Yesterday her office said she was unable to come to the phone because she was "tied up in back-to-back meetings all day".
At the beginning of the month Ms Ritchie (pictured) said that she would be defending her leadership whoever stood against her.
"Anyone in the parliamentary Assembly group is free to put their name forward if they get the nominations, but at the end of the day, I am the leader," she said.
But she has been silent since. The only senior figure to publicly support her has been Alex Attwood, the SDLP's sole minister.
Yesterday Mark Durkan, her predecessor as leader, became the most recent senior figure to avoid commenting on her leadership.
Earlier this month Conall McDevitt, a strong supporter of Ms Ritchie, refused to commit himself, saying that the time to debate the future was September.
Story so far
Margaret Ritchie became SDLP leader in 2010, beating the only other candidate, MP Alasdair McDonnell, by 35 votes. Her critics have blamed Ms Ritchie's style of leadership and media performances for the party's poor Assembly election results in May. Ms Ritchie says she will fight any challenge.