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Margaret Ritchie makes her mark with a strident attack on Sinn Fein

By Noel McAdam

Dissident republican groups are the direct legacy of Sinn Fein’s “failed war”, SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has asserted.

In a trenchant attack on mainstream republicans, she asked when Sinn Fein would admit that “what is wrong now was always wrong”.

Insisting SF remains a “protest party”, she earned sustained applause when she said: “Dissidents aren’t some new social or political phenomena; they are the direct legacy of Sinn Fein’s failed war.”

At her first party conference since becoming party leader, Ms Ritchie argued that, deep down, Sinn Fein has no desire to share with unionists and remains “every bit as sectarian” as their loyalist counterparts.

She strode onto the stage to the strain of a song, Something Good Is Gonna Work For You and firmly put her own stamp on traditional SDLP ground, describing it as a party “not afraid to say Northern Ireland” and — while committed to Irish unity — wanted the province to be a present-day social and economic success.

And she coupled her criticism of the main nationalist opponents with a new overture to the UUP to work with the SDLP in restoring the “centre parties” to the heart of government in Northern Ireland.

“We want to work (the Assembly and Executive) in a true spirit of partnership and we are ready to bring genuine goodwill and pragmatism to the table.

“We will not deny our goal of Irish unity but we can honestly say that we want this place to be a social and economic success here and now,” she argued.

The South Down MP said she believed her party and “fair-minded” unionists could resolve the current crisis over the schools transfer system and failure to set up the Education and Skills Authority, and could merge the 26 councils into 11, which proved too much for Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Nine months after taking over from Mark Durkan, Ms Ritchie said she had sent Gerry Adams “packing” when he offered the party an electoral pact in Fermanagh/South Tyrone before the General Election in May.

“I told him directly — you cannot create a better society in the North by driving people into the sectarian trenches. So next time, Gerry, don’t even ask.”

Significantly Ms Ritchie also reiterated that she has ruled out any link-up between the SDLP and any party in the Republic, pointing out that, while realignment may happen in the long term, she said: “We are not at that point yet.”

In contrast she said Sinn Fein is “a joke in the South”, with Mr Adams attempting to deny he had ever held up 2016 — the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising — as a date for a united Ireland.

“But then ability to remember what he did in the past is not Gerry’s best known quality,” she quipped.

And, while her party accepts the realities of history, she said, Sinn Fein kept attempting to re-write it. But she emphasised the SDLP remains “absolutely and unambiguously” committed to a united Ireland.

She spelt out: “Where the border disappears and where we are no longer governed by Britain. It is, without qualification, our number one political objective. Can I be any more definitive about that?”

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