Belfast Telegraph

Ritchie quits as SDLP leader: Sincere and focused, but ‘wooden’ leader’s flaws were cruelly exposed

By Liam Clarke

Long goodbyes by leaders are often damaging, but in this case waiting till the party conference in November is probably a wise move.

It is only a couple of months away and it frees those who have remained loyal to her, like Alex Attwood and Conall McDevitt, to stake their own claim for office.

Ms Ritchie was always more suited to a back-room organisational role than leadership. She has a good brain for the minutiae of policy.

She is sincere, decent and focused, but these qualities do not come across on TV or in large gatherings.

Her weaknesses were exposed with cruel accuracy in a US diplomatic cable, which later became a subject of WikiLeaks and was published in this newspaper.

Shortly after she was elected as party leader in February 2010 she told US diplomats that the SDLP "will seek to regain the party's pre-eminence among Northern Ireland's nationalist voters by differentiating itself from Sinn Fein on the economy, building a shared society, and by putting forth credible plans for a future united Ireland".

However, Kamala Lakhdhir, the US consul, reported that many party members felt Ritchie lacked "the political muscle and business acumen to rebuild the party's structures".

Most damagingly, Ms Lakhdhir described her as "wooden".

Ms Ritchie laughed it off, reciting the Elvis Presley song Wooden Heart. It was meant to draw a laugh, but the joke was partly at her own expense.

"She was wooden and the more she was coaxed the worse she performed. TV just wasn't her forte," one party adviser said.

The cap fitted and, coupled with a decline in the SDLP vote under her leadership, made her vulnerable.

She had been elected as leader partly on an "anyone but Alasdair" ticket.

That was a reference to the Dr Alasdair McDonnell, the lively and rambunctious SDLP MP for South Belfast who many MLAs and party functionaries feared would shake things up.

She narrowly defeated him.

Being elected by a narrow margin of people who hope you won't disturb them by making changes is a bad way to take control of a party which is in long-term decline.

Ms Ritchie knew the status quo wasn't an option and admitted publicly that the party had been on the slide since the days of John Hume.

It was typecast as a party of the early peace process whose work was done and, a Fianna Fail functionary told WikiLeaks, was seen as unlikely to recover.

Ms Ritchie, who had helped turn South Down into a safe SDLP seat, was a good organiser but lacked the charisma and support to battle all this inertia. The one piece of patronage at her disposal was the party's single ministry.

If she had won a second in last May's elections she might have survived. As it was she gave it to Alex Attwood, the previous incumbent, on the grounds of ability, loyalty and experience.

This meant she had to disappoint Patsy McGlone, McDonnell's former campaign manager and her deputy. Now he is the man most likely to succeed her, on a dream ticket with Dolores Kelly, the popular Upper Bann MLA as his deputy.

Seamus Mallon, the party's former deputy leader, is said to support him.

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