Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

David Gordon: New SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie faces first big test

The SDLP's Margaret Ritchie

New SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has no time to ease herself into the job. A General Election is fast approaching and how her party fares in that first big test will be down in no small part to the man she has just defeated, Alasdair McDonnell.

Of the SDLP's three current Westminster seats, his is most at risk. If he manages to be returned as South Belfast MP despite the constituency's overall unionist majority, it will provide some early and much-needed encouragement for the Ritchie era.

In the longer-term, the party has to do much more than consolidate. It needs to somehow find a way to reclaim ground it has lost over the past decade to Sinn Fein.

That is not a small task, as the SDLP has fallen victim to what political wonks call “triangulation”.

This involves an electoral rival muscling in on your ideological patch and taking ownership of your policy positions.

Today's Assembly set-up — partnership devolved government and cross-border institutions — is not a million miles away from what the SDLP has argued for since the early 1970s. But politics is not fair.

The electoral spoils in the new dispensation have been going to Sinn Fein, belated converts to the concept of power sharing at Stormont. Sinn Fein will doubtless campaign at the General and Assembly Elections on a platform of making the shared institutions work and generally standing up for nationalism.

The SDLP will say the same, but will surely need to find something else to say as well.

Pledging to make the Assembly institutions work better might have some impact. But that could depend on how successful last week's Hillsborough Castle agreement is in reality.

If the new pact delivers on its goal of making the Executive less dysfunctional, the SDLP could have less to criticise the Sinn Fein-DUP axis about.

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