Margaret Ritchie: I'm working towards a shared future for all
The SDLP elects its new leader this weekend. Here, the Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie explains why she believes she should get the job
I am contesting the leadership of the Social Democratic and Labour Party because I believe I am the candidate best qualified to do the job.
I also believe that our politics in the North is at a juncture where the SDLP can prosper and regain lost ground.
The current political situation - with the DUP and Sinn Fein lurching from crisis to stalemate and back to crisis again - presents an opportunity for the SDLP to return to the fore, providing a real alternative on the issues that matter to voters.
The sense of permanent crisis which seems to hang over the DUP/Sinn FÃ©in axis only diverts attention from the real challenges which face us as a society: rebuilding our economy, tackling sectarianism and delivering vital public services.
I also believe that there is far more which unites us as a community than divides us. Therefore, our Government should be headed by parties like the SDLP who believe in a shared future rather than those who are content with perpetual division. I will lead an SDLP which delivers for everyone, regardless of religion, age, gender or race.
Many people talk about how our opponents have stolen our clothes and how this leaves the SDLP with nowhere to go. Those people could not be more wrong.
We are fundamentally different from our opponents. Apart from being more open, the SDLP is fundamentally different in relation to policy on the economy, a reconciled society, and Irish unity.
Take the economy. I want to build an economy which is tailored to the needs of this community; ending the brain-drain and providing more good quality employment.
As the architects of devolution, the SDLP under my leadership will demand further economic powers to be devolved so we can craft an economic system suitable for our needs.
Being confined to slicing up the expenditure cake handed to us by London gives us very little control of our economic destiny.
We want more devolution and the economic freedom to create an agile, competitive, mixed, social-democratic economy. Our opponents cannot detach themselves from an old-fashioned, class-warfare mentality. In terms of the economy, they are already something of a laughing-stock in the South.
In terms of our society I also believe that we need to tackle the scourge of sectarianism that continues to blight Northern Ireland.
Sectarianism at the heart of our society is inhibiting reconciliation and stopping us from realising our full potential as a community.
I have not shied away from dealing with this problem head-on as Social Development Minister - and I will continue to work hard to deal with it if elected SDLP leader.
So reconciliation and ending division are the only ways forward for me. Yet our opponents are not interested in reconciliation - equal, but still separate, is good enough for them.
The SDLP believes in a shared future - our opponents do not. Another major difference.
And while I am determined to tackle sectarianism, I will also promote the cause of a united Ireland.
I am proud to be a nationalist, but my idea of republicanism is not about shoving a flag in people's faces, or using Irish language and culture as a stick to beat unionists with.
For me, a united Ireland must truly cherish all citizens of this island equally, respecting their religious and cultural beliefs.
My united Ireland is about taking the North into a partnership with the rest of the island where the devolved institutions in the North would still continue to operate.
Under my leadership we will work with other parties to describe what unity would actually look like. Our opponents suggest unity will be a simple takeover in 2016 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Not credible.
I also believe that Ireland should be united in a way which benefits people across the island.
There are areas where cross-border co-operation can provide real benefits. There is massive scope for co-operation in providing public services or enabling business and educational collaboration.
I will work to strengthen these relationships. And in time, as people everywhere come to benefit from these enhanced links, the foundations for an Ireland united not only geographically, but culturally, economically and in a mutually respectful way, will be laid.
Travelling across the North since being nominated for leadership by more than half the active branches of the SDLP, I have been heartened by the spirit of optimism and the desire for change from our party's grassroots membership.
Like the rest of our people, SDLP members want positive change in our politics and I intend to deliver it.
In order to deliver that change, our party needs to become stronger.
I have presented party activists with a detailed plan for party renewal and I'm pleased to say that our members are rallying around it.
I am running for leader to make our party stronger and to make the SDLP once again the largest nationalist party, offering strong ideas and a refreshing, new approach to our politics.