SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell “fully recognises” the struggle Irish nationalism has in accepting the Britishness of unionists.
He was speaking ahead of the outcome of a leadership challenge bid from Colum Eastwood MLA.
The 32-year-old Londonderry challenger has the backing of big party names such as Mark Durkan, Brid Rogers, Seamus Mallon and Pat Hume – wife of former party leader John – to take the party’s leadership crown at the party conference in Armagh.
However, Dr McDonnell, 66, was quietly confident on Friday.
“I am led to believe the majority of delegates will be supporting me,” he told the News Letter.
Voting opened in Armagh City Hotel on Friday and will continue until Saturday afternoon, with results expected later in the evening.
He affirmed the view expressed by some that Eastwood, while well liked, may be seen as too inexperienced to win just yet.
“Certainly a lot of people have commented in that direction,” he said, adding that he is “a fine young man with a great future”.
He dismissed party sources that say his leadership has seen the worst election results in its history.
“What are they talking about? We set out at the last elections to hold on to our three Westminster seats, which we did.
“We were under a lot of pressure from factors like the flag protests having increased unionist turnout and electoral pacts in East Belfast, Upper Bann and Fermanagh which eroded SDLP votes.”
When challenged that the overall results have been down, he replied: “Our overall vote has been around 100,000, it can fluctuate slightly but it is my intention to increase that.”
The GP accepted the problem defined by co-chair of the Northern Ireland Conservatives, Trevor Ringland, who says neither the SDLP nor Sinn Fein have yet arrived at a definition of Irish nationalism that would respect and include British identity in a united Ireland.
“I fully recognise the problem,” he said. “Trevor is a good friend of mine and he raises an issue which needs to be worked out.”
Former Presbyterian moderator Norman Hamilton was addressing the SDLP conference on Friday night, he added.
Reports of the emergence of significant party division emerging during his leadership are not a surprise; he puts them down to his programme for “radical change”.
There will not be any new direction under his leadership if he is re-elected as much as “a reinforcement” of his push for investment and jobs.
Sources have been suggesting a close race. When checked yesterday Paddy Power was no longer offering odds.
One source suggested Dr McDonnell had campaigned very effectively for votes among the delegates.