SDLP will not merge with southern parties, says Ritchie
The SDLP remains committed to a united Ireland but will not merge with fellow nationalist parties to achieve it, Margaret Ritchie made clear today.
In her first speech to party conference as leader, the South Down MP nailed any suggestion of a political alliance on either side of the border.
Under her predecessor Mark Durkan, the party had flirted with the idea of joining forces with one of the three main parties in the Republic of Ireland - Fianna Fail, Fianna Gael and Labour.
Earlier this year, SDLP finance spokesman Declan O'Loan was temporarily stripped of the whip for suggesting a potential merger with Sinn Fein north of the border.
Ms Ritchie rejected the offer of an electoral pact with Sinn Fein from party president Gerry Adams ahead of the Westminster poll in May.
During her leader's address to delegates in the Ramada Hotel in Belfast, the former Stormont social development minister took the opportunity to hammer any talk of a merger.
She acknowledged some members were concerned that Sinn Fein had attempted to steal the SDLP political clothes and that the party did not organise on an all Ireland basis.
"We have heard various suggestions about how we can put this right - all sorts of mergers and alliances - and even the suggestion of a single nationalist party in the north," she said.
Mrs Ritchie first addressed the issue of a merger with southern based parties.
"I have recognised that in the long term there may well be significant political realignment on this island and the SDLP may well be part of it," she said.
"But we are not at that point yet. Also, any merger with a major southern party would effectively mean the end of the SDLP and I believe with that, crucially, the disappearance of the unique brand values we bring to Irish politics. So we have ruled it out for now."
While insisting the SDLP maintained friendly relations with the three parties in the Republic, her antipathy for Sinn Fein was clear as she rejected the concept of a northern link up.
Insisting they had little in common apart from their nationalism, Ms Ritchie slammed Sinn Fein policy on the economy and community integration, and poured scorn on its strategy to achieve Irish unity.
"We are a progressive party, they are still a protest party," she said of the republicans.
"On jobs and the economic welfare of our people we have serious ideas. They have not.
"On building a better society for our children we have genuine commitment - they want the division to continue.
"And on Irish unity we are credible and they are still waving flags."
She added: "We in the SDLP remain absolutely, unambiguously committed to a united Ireland. Where the border disappears and where we are no longer governed by Britain. It is, without qualification, our number one political objective.
"Standing around waving flags, resenting Northern Ireland and its institutions and hoping somehow to wake up some morning and find Ireland united is not a strategy."
Ms Ritchie also urged moderate unionists at Stormont to help rebuild the modern ground that had been undermined by the rise of Sinn Fein and the DUP.
"I say there is scope for the centre ground to regain the centre of government, and I want to say to the unionist parties that we are ready to work with them to move on to the next horizon," she said.
"Whether anyone likes it or not, we all accept the SDLP-inspired power-sharing nature of our Government.
"So I say to unionists, we need to make it the best it can be. And isn't it likely to work better if the centre parties were back at the heart of it?
"We want to work these institutions in a true spirit of partnership and we are ready to bring genuine goodwill and pragmatism to the table.
"We will not deny our goal of Irish unity but we can honestly say that we want this place to be a social and economic success here and now - wherever we happen to be on our constitutional journey.
"So when will some of our unionist friends step up and meet the SDLP on the centre ground?"
The leader ended with a rallying call to delegates.
"Friends, we are about to embark on a new and challenging phase of our politics, as we set out to reach the next horizon," she said.
"Our people are ready to move forward. They want us to light the way.
"They want us to reach for the sky. This is a time for a new generation of SDLP leaders. This is a time for ideas. This is a time for new politics. This is the time for leadership.
"This is the time for the SDLP."