Belfast Telegraph

MPs must take their seats and do the job

The SDLP will represent all the people of Northern Ireland at Westminster and will not be drawn into sectarian stunts devised by others, says party leader Margaret Ritchie

This election is extremely important to everyone. In my role as leader of the SDLP, I have travelled across the North listening to people on the doorsteps and I know what their concerns are.

While so far, for the media, this election has been dominated by one four-letter word - 'pact' - the four-letter word I am hearing on the doorsteps is 'jobs'.

Ignoring the nonsense about pacts, the SDLP is standing in this election on the basis of an ambitious agenda to get the North back to work.

The top priority in our manifesto is to create thousands of new jobs.

And we can do it in tourism, construction, the green economy - and as a direct result of corporation tax harmonisation on the island.

As well as an all-out push for job-creation, we will stand against the substantial cuts to our vital frontline services, which will be on the agenda whichever party forms the next Westminster Government.

That is why Westminster is vital to Northern Ireland.

Those who say Westminster does not matter anymore, now we have devolved Government, are just wrong. London still determines how much our Executive can spend on things such as health, housing and education.

Other important matters such as social security, taxation and pensions are determined there, too.

Therefore, it is essential that the North has strong representation in the House of Commons from MPs who will actually take their seats and turn up to do the work.

Some people say there is no need to actually be there.

Again, they are totally wrong.

The proof is my colleague Mark Durkan, who regularly intervenes in the Commons to make the Government change its policy, or change the law.

A good example is when he tabled a series of amendments to pension legislation, which helped secure substantial pay-outs for hundreds of pensioners of the Desmonds textile group in Northern Ireland. He couldn't have done it if he hadn't been there.

It was the SDLP that ensured Westminster interest in the plight of the Presbyterian Mutual Society (PMS) savers.

We brought the Treasury Select Committee over to Belfast to investigate the matter. And we now know that the Treasury has agreed to a substantial package of help.

And the SDLP works in all of the relevant committees.

Through Alasdair McDonnell the SDLP has the highest attendance at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of all the Northern Ireland parties.

It was also due to the influence of SDLP MPs that the British Government was forced to change tack on many other issues, including the abolition of childcare vouchers, the scrapping of the 10p tax rate and VAT on car-seats.

We also opposed the war in Iraq. Again and again, the SDLP was there - where it mattered, when it mattered.

In people like Mark Durkan, Alasdair McDonnell and Fearghal McKinney, to name but a few, the SDLP has the talented, committed people who will work Westminster for the benefit of all our people. We don't just want to win seats - we want to work the seats.

We are now entering a new political era where people are crying out for new politics and genuine leadership.

And the SDLP is determined to provide that leadership.

We reject the idea of tribal head-counts and sectarian deals. And we will not be part of other people's stunts.

Sinn Fein's election strategy appears to comprise a series of attacks on me, and my party, alongside an attempt to sectarianise various marginal constituencies.

In a recent speech I'm told the Sinn Fein leader criticised us 25 times. The Alex Maskey 'stunt' in South Belfast was an attempt to do something that would look like nationalist solidarity, but which was designed to produce a single unionist candidate so that Alasdair McDonnell - Sinn Fein's real target - would lose his seat.

I believe people see through these stunts - particularly given Alex Maskey's remarks a week ago, when he described the unionist pact in Fermanagh as "grubby and sectarian".

But the SDLP will not take part in slanging matches or sectarian stunts. We will continue to move forward. New politics.

The person who best represents the new politics in this election is our Fermanagh-South Tyrone candidate, Fearghal McKinney.

He is one of Fermanagh's favourite sons who despises sectarianism in all its forms and he is a real breath of fresh air in this campaign.

He is getting a great reception in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and everywhere else.

He is easily the best candidate in that constituency.

That is why it is ridiculous that anyone should suggest he stand aside to facilitate a sectarian headcount - to the advantage of someone who doesn't think Westminster is important and who won't take their seat.

The SDLP wants to build a shared future and it cannot be built on the back of tribal pacts and sectarian politics.

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