Northern Ireland

SDLP leaders to discuss future in Newry

Margaret Ritchie
Image caption Margaret Ritchie's leadership is being challenged

Senior figures in the SDLP have been invited to Newry this weekend for a discussion about the party's future amid uncertainty over the leadership.

With just over a week until nominations close for the post of leader, senior figures have told the BBC they simply "don't know" Margaret Ritchie's intentions.

While one MLA said there was growing speculation she would not stand, another declared: "Never try and second guess Margaret Ritchie. She is her own woman and she will do her own thing."

Ms Ritchie has been on holiday in Italy. She indicated on 27 July her firm intention to fight for her post amid reports of a challenge.

But she went on holiday almost immediately and has not responded to interview requests from BBC since then.

Alex Attwood, the minister for social development, is the only MLA in her 14-strong assembly team to have unequivocally declared support.

A source close to the leader insisted the position hadn't changed - and there was no significance in the fact she had not sought nominations from branches.

He said she would, as current leader, get five branch nominations without having to formally ask.

But she has appeared an isolated figure since her deputy Patsy McGlone declared his intention on 1 August to challenge her in November.

She's also facing a possible challenge from South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell who has asked branches to nominate him should there be a contest.

She narrowly defeated him for the leadership in January 2010.

Some party sources say Mr McGlone has gained momentum since his declaration.

The internal party event at the Canal Court Hotel, organised by the Slieve Gullion branch, will include MPs, MLAs, councillors and activists from interlocking areas such as Newry and Armagh, South Down and Upper Bann.

Last month, Margaret Ritchie attended a number of meetings in Londonderry, Omagh, and Warrenpoint, along with Mr Attwood, to discuss council strategy. Sources say the leadership issue was not raised.

There are whispers that Ms Ritchie will announce her intentions this week, but an SDLP press spokesman said he was not aware of any arrangements.

Senior figures in the SDLP have been invited to a discussion in Newry this weekend for a discussion about the party's future amid uncertainty over the leadership.

A source close to Alasdair McDonnell insisted the leadership issue was "fluid" when it was suggested that Mr McGlone had the momentum.

The SDLP MLA for Upper Bann Dolores has been nominated for the post of deputy leader. Her branch met last night to give their support to her.

She is the first to declare an interest in the deputy's job.

Whoever ends up leading the SDLP faces formidable challenges, both electorally and financially. The party is in debt and lost two seats at the assembly election.

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