Ritchie sets out green vision for the SDLP

NEW SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has re-affirmed her party's nationalism, implicitly moving away from suggestions of any sort of Assembly link with the Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party.

During the SDLP leadership campaign, Ms Ritchie's unsuccessful rival Alasdair McDonnell suggested that the party should work much closer with the UUP and Alliance to form a centrist group in the Assembly as a counter-balance to the powerful DUP-Sinn Fein voting bloc.

However, in an interview with the News Letter, Ms Ritchie has appeared to be steering the party in a much more overtly nationalist direction.

Asked whether she wanted closer ties with the UUP, Ms Ritchie, who made a historic address to the UUP conference in 2007, said: "We are distinctive and different from our principal opponents, namely Sinn Fein."

The South Down MLA said that Sinn Fein had moved onto the SDLP's political ground but, in line with recent attacks on the dominant republican party for selling out on the Parades Commission's future, Ms Ritchie accused Sinn Fein of having no credible plan for bringing about a united Ireland.

She said that her party had three key features which distinguished it from Sinn Fein — a genuine interest in the economy, a desire to see reconciliation and a "credible plan for (Irish) unity".

The Social Development Minister said that by contrast Sinn Fein had openly stated it was uninterested in the economy and that "their raison d'tre is about sectarianism".

Ms Ritchie said that when there was a "strong and prosperous" Northern Ireland then a united Ireland could be achieved. However, she refused to be drawn on whether by that she meant the Province was not yet, in her view, ready for a united Ireland.

And she warned that her party was not satisfied with the current devolution settlement but wanted more power transferred from London: "Many people would say that devolution of policing and justice is the endgame in devolution. It is not. It is by no means the endgame. It is the end of this phase of politics.

"What we are talking about is a further development - namely telecommunications, broadcasting, fisheries to be devolved. We're also talking about a taxation system. We’re also probably talking about developing our own benefits (system).

“If you believe in devolution, and we believe in devolution, you would want a further level of economic independence from Britain.”

Ms Ritchie would not be drawn on how far she believed devolution should go and whether, for instance, control of the military should be devolved.

She said that there was “compelling evidence” that both “mainstream unionist and nationalists want to live together” and insisted that there was “nothing to fear from an SDLP view”.

“It’s not about shoving flags in people’s faces; it’s not about triumphalism; it’s not about overthrow — it’s about working together on all the matters that count because I think there’s more that unites us than divides us.”

However, Ms Ritchie described as “absolutely laughable” Sinn Fein’s claim that there could be a united Ireland within six years and she acknowledged that the only chance of the border being dismantled is if unionists are persuaded to accept a united Ireland.

Several times during the interview, Ms Ritchie declined to give her view on issues, saying that she would “have to consult with colleagues”.

During her leadership campaign a document was leaked in which she said she would publish details of who all the SDLP’s financial backers were.

Asked whether the party would begin publishing details of financial donors, Ms Ritchie said it was “a leak from an internal document” but conceded that the document was no less accurate merely because it was leaked.

And she acknowledged that the public was demanding transparency from political parties, but said that she would have to discuss the issue with other SDLP members before making a decision.