Margaret Ritchie: 'My title in the House of Lords will reflect Downpatrick, where I was born, and also my belief in political bridge-building... the area is a hallmark for that ethos'
Former MP and new peer Margaret Ritchie tells Laurence White how Brexit concerns and her recovery from cancer have steeled her resolve
Margaret Ritchie (61) is steeped in the politics of South Down. Born into a working-class background in Downpatrick, her interest in politics was sparked by the civil rights movement. She graduated from Queen's University Belfast in geography and political science, and was first elected a councillor in May 1985.
Two years later she went to work for the local MP Eddie McGrady before stepping back into front line politics in 2003 when she was elected to the Assembly at Stormont and became minister for social development. She was elected leader of the SDLP in 2010, the first woman to lead a political party in Northern Ireland (apart from the Women's Coalition) and in the same year became MP for South Down, a role she held until 2017 when she was defeated by Chris Hazzard of Sinn Fein.
Last week it was announced that she had been given a peerage in Theresa May's resignation honours list.
Q. Were you surprised by the offer of a peerage?
A. Obviously I was very surprised. However, I regard it as an opportunity for me to re-engage with politics at a very important time. It gives me the opportunity to deliver the authentic voice of moderate nationalism in the House of Lords. It is an opportunity not to be overlooked. I took time to reflect on the offer but, ultimately, decided the best thing to do was to take up the offer.
Q. How did you learn of the peerage?
A. You are approached by the Cabinet Office and they tell you that you were recommended by someone and ask if you would be interested. I asked for a little time to think about it and when they came back a week or two later I said I would take up the offer.
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The overriding consideration is the need to ensure that people have a voice in Brexit.
The voice of the Remain vote in Northern Ireland is missing from Parliament apart from Lady Sylvia Hermon, the independent MP from North Down.
Sinn Fein have seven votes in the House of Commons which they have failed to use.
They are stuck on the green outside the Houses of Parliament being interviewed by reporters rather than being inside voting on motions or arguing our point of view.
The DUP does not represent the Remain vote in Northern Ireland, which is the majority vote here.
Q. How did the SDLP react when you told them that you were taking up the peerage, given that they do not believe members should sit in the House of Lords?
A. There was no antipathy from within the party. I fully understood that the party has a convention of not supporting taking seats in the House of Lords but I felt this was an unique set of political circumstances.
Therefore I decided that I would step aside from the party and avoid any management problems for them at what is a busy time for the party in fighting against Brexit and trying to restore Stormont.
Q. Was it a difficult decision for you?
A. I have been a lifelong member of the party and am still SDLP to the core - to my very fingertips. I am a social democrat and an Irish nationalist and I will be reflecting those viewpoints in the House of Lords.
Q. However, you did get some criticism from the wider community?
A. Trolling does not bother me. Trolls have to realise that some day they will also be trolled. For me, the important thing is to be firm in my convictions and to follow them through. I will be providing political representation for people. It is interesting that some of the criticism came from supporters of the party which is not providing representation in the places where they were elected to.
Chris Hazzard accused me of mental gymnastics in accepting a peerage from a Tory prime minister but that did not bother me in the slightest.
Politics is not just about single identity issues but providing representation to make sure that people have their voices heard, and that is not happening at the moment.
Q. You have shown in the past that you are not afraid to take risks - for example, in becoming the first nationalist party leader to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. Was that a difficult decision?
A. I was showing respect for people who died in two world wars. I don't agree with war but that is not the point. I was also saying to nationalists that it is fine to do such things as wear a poppy. You don't have to relinquish or dilute your identity by wearing a poppy. You will wake up the next morning and still be an Irish nationalist.
Q. South Down seemed to be a constituency where there was a certain amount of cross-community voting which benefited the SDLP for many years. Is that correct?
A. The late Eddie McGrady and myself both got cross-community support. We treated people on an equal basis. People came to us with their problems and we didn't care where they went on a Sunday or any other day or what their religious or political beliefs were. Over the years that has been a hallmark of the east Down area in particular.
Q. Yet in 2017 you were defeated. Why was that?
A. Brexit had brought about - and continues to bring about - total division in our community and in society in general and that obviously has affected politics. We have seen great toxicity in politics.
We need to achieve reconciliation. For example, I personally believe in a united Ireland but that is a unity of people, not just an island. That has been the mission of the SDLP since its formation - the need for a reconciled people in a reconciled Ireland.
Q. How could that be achieved?
A. The only way to achieve it is through persuasion and in a context where the politics of moderation are dominant. There has to be a resolution of the whole Brexit issue. The best way is to see the removal of Brexit from the political agenda. It is so dangerous and that is not right.
Q. Can you see Stormont being restored given all the issues that need to be addressed?
A. I think politics always goes in cycles. We need to bring people together. The framework for that is provided in the Good Friday Agreement. It allows people to feel comfortable in their respective identities. There is no other solution to the current impasse. It is about partnership and power-sharing and we have to get back to that.
Q. But do you see any hope?
A. I am always hopeful and positive in my life and in the wider political environment and I would like to think we could restore Stormont. I am not being naive for that is the only way forward. The SDLP is all about reconciliation and building a reconciled society and I believe people will come back to that centre ground, but that will take some time.
Q. Is it a wrench for you to be stepping away from the party at this time?
A. Of course it is. I have been a member since 1980, almost 40 years. That is where my political allegiance is, but I understood that I might have caused the party problems and therefore I have stepped aside in order to do another political job.
Q. What do you think of the party forging links with Fianna Fail?
A. I support that but accept that several years ago I would not have supported such a move. I have changed opinion because of the whole issue of Brexit and saw that there was a whole new set of emerging relationships coming to the fore on the island of Ireland.
Q. Have you decided on what title to take when you enter the House of Lords?
A. It will be something that reflects the local community, reflects Downpatrick and St Patrick.
This is where I was born, went to school and worked, and I want something that reflects what I believe in - political bridge-building, respect for political differences. That area has been a hallmark for that ethos.
This is a new phase of my life and I will be concentrating on doing a different type of job but hoping to achieve the same outcome via the House of Lords.
Q. Some years ago, leaked US diplomatic papers were critical of your personal leadership attributes, accusing you of lacking the political muscle and business acumen to rebuild the SDLP. How hurtful was that?
A. Oh, that old thing. It is all part of the cut and thrust of politics.
However, I was surprised by the diplomat's comments. I had met her and thought I had got on very well with her. I was surprised but it didn't faze me.
This happened a lot of years ago and you have to remember that these people come and go. I'm still here.
Q. Do you think the SDLP can be rebuilt?
A. Politics is an evolving, emerging set of phases. There was a phase where we were part of the Executive but politics change and the problems with the SDLP began before my leadership. There was a trend established.
Things come and go in politics but the fundamentals of the SDLP will always remain.
We need to build reconciliation and a shared society. I don't believe that can be achieved by the DUP or Sinn Fein.
We need to get back to a situation where politics of moderation are to the fore and act as persuaders for partnership, and I would like to think that in the fullness of time that will come about.
Q. You have had a difficult couple of years following a diagnosis of breast cancer, a mastectomy and difficult chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment. How is your recovery going?
A. My recovery is going well. Almost exactly this time a year ago I was completing my radiotherapy treatment. It is like an anniversary.
I have regained a lot of energy levels which were badly affected during the treatment. Of course I am still subject to medical treatment and periodic review, but I am getting on with my life and am always positive about things.
There is always a concern at the back of your mind to be careful and to protect your health. That is very important because you need good health to be able to do the things that you want.
Q. Previously you said that you had difficulty walking because of joint weakness or pain following treatment. How has that changed?
A. Every Thursday morning I go to an exercise class run by the Macmillan cancer charity in collaboration with the local council.
There are about 30 people who attend. They have all had various forms of cancer. We do our workout in the gym and then some circuits. People do what they can.
The amazing thing is that no one talks about their illness. They just concentrate on getting fitter and better.
Q. What has this experience taught you?
A. It obviously gives everyone a new perspective on life. In my own case, given the form of cancer I was diagnosed with, I cannot believe that the Department of Health wants to close down two of the breast assessment centres, including one at the Cancer Centre in Belfast.
The Cancer Centre, which brings together experts in all forms of the disease and the various forms of diagnosis and treatment, was one of the great benefits of the first power-sharing Executive. Former SDLP leader Mark Durkan, as minister of finance, provided the funding for the centre which has proved its worth.
The issue of the breast assessment clinics has not yet been resolved and I believe the Department of Health is now in a quandary as they keep extending the consultation period. The proposal to shut the centres is wrong in my opinion.