Margaret Ritchie: If the SDLP name disappears I will severely regret it

Margaret Ritchie addresses a civil rights parade at Stormont in 2010, during her 21-month tenure as SDLP leader
Margaret Ritchie addresses a civil rights parade at Stormont in 2010, during her 21-month tenure as SDLP leader

A former leader of the SDLP has said she will feel a “severe” sense of regret if the party vanishes from Northern Irish politics as the result of a mooted merger.

The former MP also believes Brexit is a major factor spurring on the cross-border move.

The former South Down representative, who last year revealed she had been battling breast cancer, was speaking after days of reports suggesting that some kind of deal may be imminent between the SDLP and Fianna Fail – the Dublin-based party originally founded by Eamon De Valera, and which styles itself as “the republican party”; its leader Micheal Martin described it as having a “centrist” political background.

The SDLP, meanwhile, was formed in 1970, having emerged from the Northern Irish civil rights movement.

The suggestion of some kind of link-up has been mooted for years, but the Irish Times on Monday reported the two parties could be ready to make an announcement “possibly later this month”.

Exactly what such an arrangement would look like is not clear, and extensive attempts by the News Letter to glean information from current and former high-profile SDLP figures led to many saying they are in the dark themselves about what is going on.

However, the Irish Times quoted an unnamed “well-placed” Fianna Fail source as saying the process will eventually result in “one all-island party which will be called Fianna Fail”.

Miss Ritchie yesterday told the News Letter that if the SDLP name disappears “it would be a severe matter of regret”.

“I joined the SDLP in 1980 and I strongly believe in those social democratic and social justice values of the SDLP, and I’d like to see those values represented in the future,” she said.

“That’s all I’d want to say at this stage. I want to be, at this stage, cautious until I see the final outcome or recommendation. I’d be quite strong about that – it’s a recommendation to the wider party membership.

“I’d imagine from my knowledge of the party constitution there’d have to be a special sort of conference to discuss it.”

This week, the Irish Labour Party issued a statement to say that, if an SDLP-Fianna Fail alliance indeed goes ahead, it will “step in” to “actively support our comrades in Northern Ireland to continue to put a social democratic option to the people at elections” (and separately, NI Labour – the UK Labour Party’s local wing – said this week it intends to finally stand candidates in May’s council elections).

Asked if the SDLP would be more closely aligned to Irish Labour than to Fianna Fail, Miss Ritchie said: “The SDLP is a sister party of Irish Labour, as it is of the British Labour Party ... we’ve always had very good relationships with Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and Labour in the south and that has worked well all down the years. That’s all I would say.”

She also said she has “no doubt” Brexit was a “driving force” behind the increased interest in the cross-border link-up, adding “Brexit has probably redefined relationships on the island of Ireland”.

“It’s best to, shall we say, stall our words until we see whatever is in the final outline to be presented to the party membership.

“I think it’s a wise and prudent thing to do to wait and see what’s going to be the colour of the money, so to speak.”

On Monday, Alasdair McDonnell, Miss Ritchie’s successor as leader, told the News Letter: “Nobody has shared any information with me regarding this situation. I have not been consulted or my advice sought in any shape or form.”

As to whether she had been consulted herself, Miss Ritchie said: “There’s no reason why I would be consulted, I don’t think.

“I’m a former leader and a former MP and former MLA. But I don’t think I would have been. It’s a matter for the current leadership to be addressing.”

An SDLP spokesperson said yesterday: “Talks have been ongoing between the parties for some time now. But as we have consistently stated, any final decision on this matter will be brought before the party membership.”