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SDLP feeling the strain

By Noel McAdam

Tensions inside the SDLP are rising amid fears a new leadership contest will further increase internal divisions.

Current deputy leader Patsy McGlone has already announced he will challenge the incumbent leader Margaret Ritchie for the position.

And the man Ms Ritchie defeated last year, former deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell, has yet to make clear whether he intends running again.

Nominations for the race do not close until September 16 and the vote for leader is not until early November.

Yesterday only one senior SDLP Assembly Member was nailing his colours to a particular mast. Unsurprisingly, Alex Attwood - who Ms Ritchie again nominated as an Executive minister, passing over Mr McGlone - said he would be supporting the present leader.

And without naming Mr McGlone, he said: "Maybe people who don't have the electoral strength in their own constituency should be careful about thinking they can do better than Margaret Ritchie.

"Margaret has been tested in a lot of places and came out looking good. Would they come out looking as good?"

It is believed he was referring to the last contest, just over 18 months ago, when - apart from her own South Down heartland and the greater Belfast area, Ms Ritchie also drew strong support from Upper Bann and Londonderry.

She won a total of 222 votes - 35 ahead of Mr McDonnell, who has said he is under pressure from supporters to stand again.

Other MLAs, including Ms Ritchie's close adviser Conall McDevitt, yesterday declined to clarify who they are supporting.

"August is not the best month to be engaging in a big debate about the SDLP's future," South Belfast MLA Mr McDevitt said. "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." And the party's next most senior female figure after Ms Ritchie, Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly, has also refused to confirm who she is backing. "This is something that will be discussed by party branches and none of them are meeting until early in September," she said.

Mr McGlone, who turned down Ms Ritchie's offer of chairing a Stormont scrutiny committee, has called for a change in the style of leadership and the building of a more effective grassroots organisation.

"I have already done this in my own constituency. So I don't just say what I am going to do, I do it. Really, what I am saying, is give me an opportunity," he added.

Under SDLP rules candidates for party leader must receive nominations from at least five branches. Patsy McGlone will have secured sufficient support before launching his campaign to oust sitting leader Margaret Ritchie. But nominations do not close for another seven weeks - September 16 - and the contest is not until the party's annual conference, expected on November 6.

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