SDLP pledges to learn lessons after Westminster wipeout

(l-r): Alasdair McDonnell (South Belfast), Margaret Ritchie (South Down) and Mark Durkan (Foyle) lost their seats, wiping out the SDLP's presence at Westminster. All three are former leaders of the party.
(l-r): Alasdair McDonnell (South Belfast), Margaret Ritchie (South Down) and Mark Durkan (Foyle) lost their seats, wiping out the SDLP's presence at Westminster. All three are former leaders of the party.

The SDLP has been left reeling after a disastrous election campaign in which they lost all three seats.

The result, which saw Sinn Fein steal the party's safest seat in Foyle, as well as the stronghold of South Down and South Belfast, held for 12 years, now leaves Irish nationalists without representation at Westminster.

Former SDLP leader Mark Durkan apologised to the party founder John Hume and said lessons must be learned.

But he said speculation over the SDLP's demise was premature.

"We are not going away," he said.

"We will live to fight another day and go back to the drawing board to see how we can do things better, how we can connect with people better and get our message to them and show that we are still relevant, we still have a lot to offer."

Mr Durkan insisted there was no push from within the party for a leadership change.

He added: "I have concerns in terms of our party's electoral results. We haven't held our seats, but I'm also concerned for the future of the North and the future of politics here, now that it has descended to nothing more than a sectarian headcount."

There was fighting talk too in South Down, where Sinn Fein snatched the seat from another SDLP stalwart for the first time in 20 years.

Margaret Ritchie, who won the seat in 2010 after taking over from her friend and mentor, the late Eddie McGrady, claimed she could hold her head high.

"I am not going away," she said. "I am going to live and fight another day. The people of South Down also want service and representation. They want that delivered here in the constituency and also in parliament."

The SDLP was born out of the civil rights movement in August 1970, when six Stormont MPs and one Senator joined together.

As one of the architects of the historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement, they helped end decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

Since then however, the party has struggled against a post-Troubles Sinn Fein, despite the republicans' abstentionist stance.

And, in 2015, Alasdair McDonnell entered the record books after polling the lowest ever majority in any Westminster election.

This time round, the former GP failed to cling on.

Addressing weary supporters accompanied by his young daughter Aileen on the podium in Belfast's Titanic Exhibition Centre, he too was despondent.

"It's never easy being here on a night like this," he said.