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O’Loan punished by SDLP over his ‘single party’ gaffe

The SDLP has removed the party whip from Assembly Member Declan O’Loan following his call for a single nationalist party.

The move means the North Antrim MLA cannot attend party meetings at Stormont, vote as an SDLP member or serve as vice-chair of the culture and arts and standards and privileges committee.

The punishment, for an indefinite period, followed a conversation between Mr O’Loan and party leader Margaret Ritchie yesterday after which a party spokesman said the action had been taken "more in sorrow than anger".

On Monday Mr O’Loan was forced to withdraw his statement only three hours after issuing it, amid reports of shouting matches in the corridors of Stormont.

The veteran member was accused of undermining the party’s criticism of the General Election unionist pact in Fermanagh/ South Tyrone and Sinn Fein’s suggestion of a similar move in South Belfast. But some grassroots members yesterday sprung to Mr O’Loan’s defence. He was keeping a low profile and was not available for further comment.

His initial statement, not issued through the party’s Press office, said, however: "I believe that a major realignment of northern nationalism is now called for and I think that this means the formation of a new single nationalist party.

"The values of the SDLP and its ability to command respect and at least second preference votes across the whole community are not something that should be lost. In the interests of achieving Irish unity, that respect is vital.

"Many nationalist voters are willing to exercise their votes interchangeably between the SDLP and Sinn Fein."

Within a few hours, however, a second statement came from Mr O’Loan, pointing out his call "does not represent established party policy and I now wish to withdraw it (and) not make any further comment on the matter".

It is understood, though, Mr O’Loan had the support of a majority of colleagues in the party’s Ballymena branch, of which he is chairman, where the issue was discussed last week.

Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd said the withdrawal of the whip was evidence of an identity crisis in the SDLP leadership.

"It would appear from comment by other grassroots SDLP members that there is a wish for democratic debate within that party about its future direction," he said.

Belfast Telegraph