Northern Ireland

SDLP set to vote for new leader

Margaret Ritchie
Image caption Four candidates are vying to take over from Margaret Ritchie

It's been less than two years since Margaret Ritchie seized the top job in the SDLP.

But, following yet another disappointing election in May, she has bowed out - insisting she wants to focus on her post as an MP for South Down.

Now four MLAs - Alex Attwood, Conall McDevitt, Alasdair McDonnell and Patsy McGlone - are chasing the leadership, wooing more than 300 delegates ahead of this weekend's vote.

The race was forced by the deputy leader Patsy McGlone back in August. He said it was his duty to intervene and say "enough is enough".

"I knew members had struggled on difficult doorsteps during a campaign which saw us lose three assembly seats - and not to Sinn Fein but to the DUP.

'Front-runner'

"Many said there was no crisis in leadership, no crisis in management - including some in the race today."

This was clearly a dig at Mr Attwood, who was the only MLA to unequivocally endorse Margaret Ritchie's leadership. He said he was being loyal.

Mr McGlone's camp includes founding SDLP member Ivan Cooper and North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness. He's seen by some to be the front-runner, but some insiders say the race is tightening up and could be quite unpredictable.

Mr McGlone has vowed to put an "end to the cliques", stop internal division and rebuild the party.

Reforming and rebuilding the SDLP is a common theme among the leadership candidates.

South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell, who was narrowly defeated by Margaret Ritchie the last time, has decided to try again.

South Belfast recipe

He launched his campaign at the Linenhall Library's political section, where reminders of the SDLP's glory days could be found. He was accompanied by one of the party's new young councillors, Nicola Mallon.

Mr McDonnell said his track record in winning South Belfast, a naturally unionist seat, against the odds is winning him supporters. "People want me if you like to take the South Belfast recipe and extend it right across the north."

He said he cannot do it alone but with the right structures in each constituency, the SDLP can be transformed. His slogan is: "The decline stops now".

Another South Belfast MLA, Conall McDevitt, fancies his chances, however. He is the youngest of the four candidates, aged 39.

He's a relative newcomer to elected politics, and is running with the slogan: "Real change".

'New generation'

He has the biggest branch and his backers include the party's former Stormont minister Brid Rodgers.

He is hoping his youth and ideas will attract a new generation.

"I want to lead the SDLP because, bluntly, someone still needs to speak out," he told his supporters in Belfast.

"This party - and what we stand for - our voice needs to be heard loud. Someone needs to speak out because whilst Stormont is stable, working families have never had it tougher."

Alex Attwood, who is the executive's environment minister, was last to enter the race but believes he has since gained momentum at the hustings.

His supporters include former south Down MP Eddie McGrady.

Mr Attwood, MLA for West Belfast, said he has the experience to prevail.

'Toughest places'

He pointed out he's had to take on prime ministers and chief constables to win arguments on issues such as policing and parading.

"All of that in my view is proven leadership - being in the toughest places of political life and making the argument and that argument prevailing. Skills I learned - more than anybody - from Seamus Mallon (former deputy leader.)"

The Irish News columnist Brian Feeney has tipped Mr McGlone to win, but this week Mr Attwood became the bookie's favourite, a position dismissed by his critics as simply a reaction by bookmakers to a few bets.

The race is unpredictable because it is a proportional representation election.

The winner has to take more than 50% of the vote - and no-one is likely to do that in the first round.

The second round, where one of the contenders is expected to be eliminated, is expected to tell the tale, although no-one can rule out a third round at this stage.

The polls open on Friday at 1900 GMT and close on Saturday at 1600 GMT. The winner is expected to be announced shortly after that.

Whoever wins will have a mammoth task. The party has been in decline for well over a decade and it recently had to cut back on staff due to serious financial pressures.

The good news is there is no election until 2014. That gives the new leader around 900 days to settle in.

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