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Margaret Ritchie courts SDLP membership

By John Mulgrew

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has sent two letters to party members in the wake of a challenge to her leadership this week.

The current party leader, who faced a public challenge from deputy leader Patsy McGlone on Tuesday, sent the letters in what is being viewed as a bid to strengthen her leadership.

One of the letters speaks of the need for party renewal, according to a BBC report. It also includes details of four planned meetings to be held in Northern Ireland this month — aimed at discussing local government strategy.

On Tuesday Mid-Ulster Assembly Member Patsy McGlone announced he would be launching a challenge to Ms Ritchie's leadership of the party.

He said: “I am proud of my Irishness and proud to offer myself as leader of a party which represents an Irishness of inclusivity, regardless of race, colour or creed. The way forward for us needs three strategic elements: strong leadership, clarity of message and radically improved grassroots organisation.”

He will run to become the new leader at the party's annual conference in November.

There has also been speculation that South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell, who lost out on the party leadership by 35 votes, may also stand.

Poor election results, which saw the party lose two seats in May's elections, have prompted growing discontent within the party over Ms Ritchie's suitability as a leader.

She has only been in the post for less than two years after replacing her predecessor Mark Durkan at the start if 2010.

It is the first time in the history of the party that a leader has faced a formal internal leadership challenge.

Environment Minister Alex Attwood is one of the only senior party members to publicly give his backing for the current leader.

Speaking this week, South Belfast MLA Conall McDevitt declined to clarify his position on the party leadership. “August is not the best month to be engaging in a big debate about the SDLP's future. This is not just about the leadership, but about the future direction of the party. At present there is no vacancy for the leadership of the party.”

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