No big exodus expected from SDLP: Margaret Ritchie

Margaret Ritchie has been told the name SDLP will not disappear as a result of its new connection with Fianna Fail
Margaret Ritchie has been told the name SDLP will not disappear as a result of its new connection with Fianna Fail
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A former leader of the SDLP has said she does not expect a major exodus of members as her party gears up for the unveiling of a formal link between the Belfast-based party and Fianna Fail.

A long-awaited formal announcement on the subject is expected tomorrow morning at 11.30am at the SDLP’s offices in Belfast – however it is understood that approval is still needed from SDLP members for any such move.

Former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie told the News Letter yesterday that the SDLP name is expected to remain as part of whatever link-up is announced tomorrow, adding that she does not expect any big departures from the party as a result.

Dissent has been voiced from some SDLP figures about linking up with another party.

For example, the SDLP youth wing has said it is “against any merger, working arrangement, etc with any party whose values and principles are contradictory to the values and principles of the SDLP”, and SDLP MLA Claire Hanna last year said Fianna Fail was “not a party I would join”.

Miss Ritchie, who led the party in 2010/2011, told the News Letter today that about two weeks ago the SDLP’s leader and deputy told her the SDLP name “is going to remain on the ballot paper... I have to take their word for it”.

Instead of a merger she expects “a partnership to do with policy issues,” and that she said is “relatively content” with such an arrangement.

When it comes to dissent within the party, she said: “My understanding is there is a special meeting of the SDLP to be arranged within the next few weeks. I don’t envisage any big departures to be quite honest – there is no change to the constitution as I can see it of the SDLP. This is about a partnership, about a working together with Fianna Fail.”

There has been talk for years of a possible merger between the roughly-50-year-old SDLP, headquartered in Belfast, and the far larger 93-year-old party, headquartered in Dublin.

However, speculation ramped up significantly at the New Year when a report in the Irish Times quoted a “well-placed” anonymous Fianna Fail source as saying that what is planned is a “phased process” which will result in “one all-island party which will be called Fianna Fáil”.

Besides confirming that talks were indeed under way, the SDLP leadership has said little about what is envisaged, and SDLP members have complained of being kept in the dark about the plans.

However, on Tuesday night there was a meeting of Fianna Fail members, with the party’s foreign affairs spokesman Niall Collins saying “the proposal on the table to form a partnership is fully endorsed by the parliamentary party”.

It is also understood SDLP MLAs and leadership met on Tuesday too ahead of tomorrow’s announcement (Miss Ritchie had not been at that meeting).