Belfast Telegraph

The SDLP leadership sweepstakes

By Liam Clarke

"it could be like the Grand National with everyone in the race and it could be just two horses," an SDLP insider said last night.

The party is still gathering itself after Margaret Ritchie surprised some by saying that she would stand aside from the leadership and from the Assembly at the party conference in November.

At this point even two horses aren't guaranteed - the only declared runner is Patsy McGlone, the Mid Ulster MLA who is currently Ms Ritchie's deputy.

The other likely runner is Alasdair McDonnell, the South Belfast MP who ran Ms Ritchie close when she won the leadership in February of last year.

Supporters say Dr McDonnell won't decide until late on Sunday at the earliest.

He is attending a meeting of potential supporters which won't end until after 10pm. He is likely to run, but nothing can be taken for granted.

He celebrated his 62nd birthday just over a week ago and he has to consider whether he will present a young enough image to gain a majority.

One answer is to get a younger runner for deputy, which is elected separately.

Ideally it would be someone from one of the SDLP's major areas of support in South Down, where Ms Ritchie and Eddie McGrady are the power-brokers, Foyle, where Mark Durkan is the MP, or South Armagh.

Mr McGlone is already ahead of Dr McDonnell in gaining geographic spread. He is being tipped to run alongside Dolores Kelly, the popular Upper Bann MLA who has indicated she will contest the deputy's post.

Mr McGlone is in a strong position but may have weakened it by giving as his reason for declaring he would run against Ms Ritchie her refusal to give him a ministry. "Other MLAs have been disappointed, too, and will have little sympathy," a party insider said.

There is a school of thought in the SDLP that the party should skip a generation from the 50 and 60-somethings who have run it.

Despite predictions from some pundits that the SDLP is past recovery there is some talent further down the age range. Colum Eastwood from Foyle and Conall McDevitt from South Belfast are the most obvious rising stars.

The contest may be coming a little early for these youngsters, who have yet to serve a full term in the Assembly and have no ministerial experience.

However, Mr Eastwood, a former mayor of Derry at the age of 27, has been Assembly private secretary to Environment Minister Alex Attwood, while Mr McDevitt has been a high-profile spokesman on education and policing.

He is also a member of the largest branch in the party.

Mark H Durkan, nephew of the Ms Ritchie's predecessor as party leader, is also a promising young politician.

Any of these young men could enter the race as leader or stand for the deputy's post.

Alex Attwood is a dark horse.

He is seen as a Ritchie loyalist to such an extent that no other leader is likely to keep him on, despite a good performance as minister.

He might be encouraged to run if he could be sure of the backing of Ms Ritchie's South Down stronghold.

Story so far

Margaret Ritchie's announcement that she will stand down as SDLP leader in November has thrown open the race to succeed her. Her deputy Patsy McGlone will be standing for the leadership so his post is also vacant. Nominations close next Friday and the pre-race horse trading is intense.

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