Once upon a time it might have mattered who the SDLP elected as their leader. Once upon a time the SDLP were the senior nationalist party in Northern Ireland. But not at the moment – the SDLP are a minor party, receiving barely one sixth of the vote, and considerably less than half of the nationalist vote. In the 2009 European Parliament election they beat … well, the TUV, Alliance and the Greens. If they slip any further they will be counted amongst that sad group of ‘also-rans’.
Their new leader, Margaret Ritchie, announced in her victor’s speech that ‘she would revive the SDLP’s fortunes and make it the largest party in the North’. If she managed to do that she would certainly be the greatest politician in the north’s recent history – but on her track record so far she has precisely no hope of doing it.
The SDLP are barely a shadow of their former selves, and they seem incapable of finding a way out of the doldrums. The hinted-at co-operation with Fianna Fáil could have provided a path back to relevance, but the election of Ritchie is likely to reverse that co-operation – she is known to not be greatly in favour of it.
Ritchie’s election leaves Alasdair McDonnell in a difficult position. He faces a Westminster election soon knowing that his South Belfast seat is only a loaner. If he had won the SDLP leadership he would have had a higher profile to build upon, but there is now something of a loser about him. His chances of retaining South Belfast must have just gone down a bit.
Whether Ritchie will now use her heightened status to take the South Down seat (or candidacy, at least) over from Eddie McGrady is uncertain. McGrady has said he intends to stand again, but he is, to be polite, over the normal age of retirement. The question is whether Ritchie thinks that the proper place for an SDLP leader is in Stormont or in Westminster. Logic suggests Stormont, but pride often outweighs logic. The answer to this question should become clear soon.