Belfast Telegraph

WikiLeaks: US official - SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie 'stilted, wooden ... with an unpleasant voice'

By Adrian Rutherford

Margaret Ritchie was branded “wooden” and burdened with “an unpleasant public speaking voice” by a senior US official.

A leaked cable profiling the SDLP leader also describes how she has appeared “stilted” and remarks on her “sometimes bumpy public appearances”.

The unflattering description is contained in a confidential dispatch written by Kamala Lakhdhir, the American Consul General in Belfast.

It was compiled in the wake of Ms Ritchie’s election as party leader in February 2010, when she defeated Alasdair McDonnell in a ballot of party members.

In the cable, Ms Lakhdhir concludes she has a “lack of business acumen” and reports doubts over whether she has the “political muscle or innovative ideas” to revive the SDLP.

The comments will raise fresh questions over Ms Ritchie's leadership, particularly after a damaging election campaign which saw the party lose two Assembly seats.

They are contained in a dispatch marked ‘CONFIDENTIAL/NOFORN’, meaning the contents are considered too sensitive to be viewed by a foreign government.

It was circulated to the US embassies in Dublin and London, the State Department in Washington and even the National Security Council.

Ms Lakhdhir states Ms Ritchie's appointment comes as the SDLP seeks “to right itself following years of decline”.

However the cable — released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks — reports concerns that she lacks the necessary qualities for the role.

In particular, it refers to the South Down MP's speaking skills, noting how consulate officials were left unimpressed following meetings with her.

“While Ritchie seems to connect well at a personal level with both colleagues and constituents, she has appeared wooden and stilted during interactions with Consulate officials,” Ms Lakhdhir continues.

“She does not possess the rhetorical skills of her predecessor Mark Durkan, and is burdened with what some deem an unpleasant public speaking voice.”

It notes that some of Ms Ritchie’s public speaking engagements in the run-up to the leadership vote “received poor reviews”. According to the cable, consulate staff were also briefed by party insiders who raised concerns about Ms Ritchie’s economic credentials.

“Despite being seen as an earnest and honest politician, many SDLP faithful worry that Ritchie lacks the political muscle and business acumen needed to rebuild the party’s structures in the post-John Hume, post-peace process context,” it adds.

And it quotes a senior banking official and SDLP supporter who warned that her leadership would be “a disaster” for the party's economy strategy.

The document reports concerns from party members about the direction the SDLP would have taken had Mr McDonnell been elected.

It quotes several delegates voicing concerns that a McDonnell-led SDLP would become “merely a northern arm of Fianna Fail”.

The leadership ballot saw Ms Ritchie triumph by 222 votes to 187. However, in a detailed commentary near the end of the cable, Ms Lakhdhir raises doubts over her suitability for the role.

“Although Ritchie was the more palatable and comfortable candidate for the majority of the SDLP, it is not yet clear if she possesses either the political muscle or innovative ideas to lead the party to its once-held position of pre-eminence,” she comments.

“Being both the first female party leader and enjoying a strong connection with the youth of the party send positive signals to the SDLP electorate, and her reported penchant for organization and strategy should help align a party that ran adrift in the post-Hume era.

“That said, her faltering rhetorical skills and lack of business acumen may limit her ability to take on Sinn Fein in areas in which it is potentially vulnerable, such as education and the economy.” And Ms Lakhdhir concludes: “Ritchie's success or failure will affect the shape and future of centrist nationalism in Northern Ireland.”

WikiLeaks: US Embassy Cables
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