The election of Margaret Ritchie marks a fresh start for the Social Democratic and Labour Party.
She is the first woman to lead a major party in Northern Ireland, and her election puts paid to the oft-heard criticism of the SDLP as the party of the “grey men.”
Taioseach Brian Cowen placed Margaret Ritchie’s election in the right perspective when he said that she followed “in one of the most distinguished lines in Irish political history.”
This was a coded reference to the contribution of the party founders, including the late Lord Fitt and also John Hume, who led the SDLP with |distinction for many years.
It was inevitable that their successors would be less inspirational, but Mark Durkan, who gave up the leadership yesterday, deserves great credit for keeping the SDLP as relevant as possible in the current political process.
The centre parties, including the Ulster Unionists, have enjoyed less influence because |the main players now are the DUP and Sinn Fein— a fact which also rankles with the UUP, but one which is part of the realpolitik of Northern Ireland.
The emergence of Margaret Ritchie will provide the opportunity for the SDLP to gain more support in the centre ground, but this will happen only if the party shows evidence of fresh thinking, and argues its case well.
The DUP and Sinn Fein have shown that they are political realists by hammering out an agreement which sustains Stormont, and also keeps their party agendas reasonably intact.
However, in the frustrating run-up to the latest agreement, the public showed that it is tired of polemical politics. The SDLP, if their new leader manages to inspire it, could be well-placed to take advantage of a new mood of political realism.