Ritchie's poppy move 'is a major breakthrough'

UNIONIST voters who tactically placed their 'X' beside Margaret Ritchie at the last Westminster election will now "feel they did the right thing" after she became the first SDLP leader to wear the poppy on Remembrance Sunday, it has been claimed.

South Down DUP MLA Jim Wells congratulated Ms Ritchie after she attended a ceremony in the constituency to mark the sacrifice of millions of war dead.

Mr Wells, who stood against the nationalist leader in the Westminster elections in May, said he wanted to "congratulate Margaret on a very brave decision and one that has every unionist in South Down applauding her".

He added: "Margaret made a commitment when she was elected to represent all sides of the community in South Down and I have to say that this decision, perhaps more than any, very symbolically has confrmed that.

"A lot of the unionist community in south Down see this as a major breakthrough."

Mr Wells added that "a very large number" of the unionist community in South Down "voted tactically for Margaret in an attempt to keep (Sinn Fein MLA] Caitriona Ruane out of the seat".

"People who would normally vote for myself told me they were going to vote for Margaret because they saw her a someone who could have represented both communities. What she has done has proved that is true. Probably now after Sunday these unionists will feel they have done the right thing, although I would prefer they had voted for me, let's be honest.

"Those who made that tactical decision will now feel she has stood by her commitment. I think symbolically this has shown she is prepared to take a risk - this is not something she had to do, I mean, she could have stayed at home."

Ms Ritchie said her party believed in reconciliation on the island of Ireland and wanted to acknowledge Irish nationalists who fought in two world wars and had been airbrushed out of history.

She said: "We have to reach out and I was doing that by reaching out to those who lost loved ones in both wars. I simply see this as an act of remembrance, an act of respect, moving on and reaching out."

Chairman of Lisburn SDLP, Pat Catney, who laid a wreath during a ceremony in Moira, said society has to break away from claiming exclusive rights over symbols such as the poppy.

The former GAA player said he was maintaining a personal family tradition, stretching back more than half-a-century, which centred around the death of his uncle Laurence Catney who was serving in the Merchant Navy when his ship was sunk off the coast of Tenerife in 1942.

"I make no apologies for carrying on a family tradition and praying, as I have always done on Remembrance Sunday, for all who have lost their lives as a result of confict on the world stage," he said.