United Ireland my top priority - Ritchie

MARGARET Ritchie has called on unionists to work with the SDLP, despite its "number one priority" being a united Ireland.

Addressing her party's annual conference on Saturday, the SDLP leader was unequivocal that removing the border is a higher priority than any other issue.

But she called on unionists to "step up" to support the party in the "centre ground".

Speaking to delegates at Belfast's Ramada Hotel, Ms Ritchie mocked the Alliance Party for not pressing the case for a united Ireland.

"We in the SDLP remain absolutely, unambiguously committed to a united Ireland," she said.

"Where the border disappears and where we are no longer governed by Britain. It is, without qualifcation, our number one political objective.

"Can I be any more defnitive about that?

"Incidentally, the last time I checked it wasn't the central policy

plank of the Alliance Party."

However, Ms Ritchie made clear that despite the wishes of some party members the SDLP will not join forces with Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail or any other party in an attempt to create a united Ireland.

In her frst speech to the party conference as leader, the South

Down MP said: "I have recognised that in the long term there may

well be signifcant political realignment on this island and the SDLP may well be part of it.

"But we are not at that point yet. Also, any merger with a major southern party would effectively mean the end of the SDLP and I believe with that, crucially, the disappearance of the unique brand values we bring to Irish politics. So we have ruled it out for now."

On Friday, Ulster Unionist chief whip Fred Cobain appealed to the

SDLP to help it reverse the St Andrews Act changes to choosing the frst minister which open up the possibility of a Sinn Fein first minister.

Ms Ritchie, the former social development minister, said that

her party wanted to "persuade" unionists to abandon the Union in

favour of a united Ireland.

"SDLP progressive nationalists see unity as a coming together of

strong partners north and south, and not a hostile takeover of a

weak north with a demoralised unionist majority," she said.

"I say there is scope for the centre ground to regain the centre of government, and I want to say to the unionist parties that we are

ready to work with them to move on to the next horizon.

"We will not deny our goal of Irish unity but we can honestly

say that we want this place to be a social and economic success here

and now – wherever we happen to be on our constitutional journey.

"So when will some of our unionist friends step up and meet the SDLP on the centre ground?"

She scorned Sinn Fein for its "flag-waving", "failed war" and

inability to even say the name of the state whose government they

jointly administer.

"Our opponents, despite (Sinn Fein fnance spokesman) Mitchel McLaughlin's isolated protestations, are at best ambivalent about the Northern Ireland economy," she said.

"Indeed they cannot even bring themselves to utter the words 'Northern Ireland'.

"They remain suspicious of investors and entrepreneurs, and resentful of profit."

Ms Ritchie claimed that a set of SDLP economic proposals would

"guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies in the public service".

Earlier, Presbyterian moderator the Rev Dr Norman Hamilton joined Ulster GAA president Tom Daly on a panel to discuss the DUP-Sinn Fein Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy.

The moderator, who has worked to reduce tensions in north Belfast,

challenged nationalists to show that unionist culture is important.

"I want to hear from nationalist communities that loyalist and unionist culture matters and not just something to be managed," he said.

"And I want to hear from loyalist communities that it is important that nationalist views are expressed."

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