Ritchie unlikely to listen to 'Stand down Margaret'

Margaret Ritchie
Image caption Margaret Ritchie faces a leadership challenge

It's summer and the corridors at Stormont are quiet with many of our politicians on leave.

But others are already preparing for the autumn - a new assembly term, and a rash of party conferences.

Sinn Fein normally hold their ard fheis in the spring, but it was moved because of the assembly elections.

So republicans will gather at Belfast's Waterfront Hall in early September. This will pose a logistical difficulty for the academics and diplomats who attend the invitation-only British Irish Association conference.

They had hoped to entice politicians from across the spectrum to their gathering on the same weekend, but republicans are likely to be thin on the ground.

In October, the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly meets in Brighton, at a venue particularly familiar to historians of the troubles - the Grand Hotel.

Changed times when Sinn Fein TDs and MLAs can mix with other British and Irish parliamentarians in the place where the IRA tried to kill Margaret Thatcher.

Four years before the Brighton bombing, the Beat recorded their ska single "Stand Down Margaret" as a plaintive plea to the then Conservative prime minister to resign.

Later this year, at the SDLP's conference on the first weekend in November, a very different Margaret could find the Beat's pessimistic lyrics ringing in her ears.

Since the SDLP lost two assembly seats, there's been growing discontent over the leadership provided by Margaret Ritchie.

Her critics claimed her performances in the pre-election TV debates were unconvincing.

The leak of the US Consul's candid opinion that the new SDLP leader is "wooden" fed into the tendency to blame Ms Ritchie for the party's plight.

After the election the leader passed over her deputy Patsy McGlone, choosing instead to appoint her trusted supporter Alex Attwood as environment minister.

Mr McGlone, the Mid Ulster MLA, pointedly declined his leader's alternative offer that he should chair the Stormont Enterprise Committee.

Instead the job went to the North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness.

It's now thought highly likely that Ms Ritchie will face a challenge for the party leadership at the SDLP conference in the autumn.

It's believed Mr McGlone will throw his hat in the ring, whilst it's thought the South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell - who Ms Ritchie beat back in 2009 - has still not ruled himself out.

Ms Ritchie's critics say they would prefer a "smooth transition", with the South Down MP standing aside in the run up to the conference.

A senior party source told me: "Margaret has had her chance and it's now time for someone else to lead the party to a better place".

The leader is accused of failing to accept any responsibility for the losses in May.

However the SDLP leader shows no sign of listening to those calling on her to "Stand Down, Margaret".

Instead, over the summer, Ms Ritchie has continued to insist that she has no intention of stepping down. Those close to her accuse her critics of disloyalty.

A year and a half ago Dr McDonnell was taken aback by the level of support Ms Ritchie garnered from activists in areas like South Down, Derry, Upper Bann and West Belfast.

She got 222 votes - 35 ahead of the South Belfast MP.

The new leader successfully hurdled her first major obstacle - the Westminster poll of 2010.

The SDLP defended all its three seats, and Ms Ritchie comfortably saw off the challenge from Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane to ensure the SDLP held on to Eddie McGrady's old seat.

But the SDLP's rejection in 2010 of any electoral pact with Sinn Fein to take on a unionist unity candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone went down badly with some potential voters.

It's thought to have contributed to Tommy Gallagher's defeat in May this year, a loss compounded by Thomas Burns' failure to hold his seat in South Antrim.

Although Joe Byrne won back a seat in West Tyrone, the loss of Declan O'Loan in North Antrim meant the SDLP Stormont team decreased from 16 to 14.

This came as a blow to SDLP activists who had hoped the party might gain an extra ministry.

The question is whether the mood of the party has changed decisively since Ms Ritchie took over from Mark Durkan in February 2010.

The deadline for leadership contenders is September 16th, whilst any leadership election will be held at the party conference on the first weekend in November.