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Margaret Ritchie to replace Eddie McGrady in South Down?

One of Northern Ireland's longest serving MPs last night announced his intention to retire.

SDLP South Down representative Eddie McGrady told a party meeting he would not be seeking the nomination to stand in the forthcoming election.

His retirement leaves the way open for party leader Margaret Ritchie, the Stormont Social Development Minister who once worked for Mr McGrady, to contest her first Westminster election.

An SDLP selection meeting for South Down must take place in the next three weeks, a spokesman for the party said. A strong candidate was essential to hold the seat and it is understood Ms Ritchie will seek the nomination.

The Ulster Unionists have announced John McCallister as their candidate in the constituency but the DUP and Sinn Fein have not yet declared their hands.

But it is widely believed controversial Education Minister Caitriona Ruane will run for Sinn Fein.

Mr McGrady, who has served as an MP since 1987, announced his intention to stand aside at a constituency council meeting in Newcastle last night.

He said it had been “a great honour and privilege” to serve at various stages as a councillor, Assembly member and MP.

“I have every confidence the party, in selecting my replacement, will choose wisely. I have spent 23 years as an MP representing all the people of South Down and democratic Irish nationalism in the House of Commons.

“I know if SDLP leaders had not been there to challenge the British Government, to act in the interests of the Irish people, nationalists and unionists, and to demand justice and equality for all, we would not have peace and no prospect of a better future.”

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