Cablegate: Northern Ireland's Sdlp Elects Margaret Ritchie Party

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P 121415Z FEB 10

C O N F I D E N T I A L BELFAST 000015



E.O. 12958: DECL: 2/12/2020

CLASSIFIED BY: Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir, Consul General, AMCONSUL
REASON: 1.4 (b), (d)

1. (C/NF) Summary: Seeking to right itself following years of
decline in the post-Good Friday Agreement era, the SDLP has
chosen Margaret Ritchie to succeed Mark Durkan as party leader.
Ritchie will seek to regain the party's pre-eminence among
Northern Ireland's nationalist voters by differentiating itself
from Sinn Fein on the economy, building a shared society, and by
putting forth credible plans for a future united Ireland.
Despite being seen as an earnest and honest politician, many
SDLP faithful worry that Ritchie lacks the political muscle and
business acumen needed to rebuild the party's structures in the
post-John Hume, post-peace process context. While some may have
supported Ritchie's candidacy to preserve the social democratic
legacy of the SDLP, others worry that "more of the same" will
push the party further into irrelevance. Regardless, Ritchie's
success or failure will affect the shape and future of centrist
nationalism in Northern Ireland. End summary.

Ritchie Takes Helm of SDLP

2. (SBU/NF) After a hard-fought, five-month-long campaign,
delegates to Northern Ireland's Social Democratic Labor Party's
(SDLP) annual conference elected current Minister for Social
Development and South Down MLA Margaret Ritchie as their new
leader. Ritchie defeated South Belfast MP and MLA Dr. Alasdair
McDonnell by a margin of 222 to 187 to succeed outgoing leader
Mark Durkan. Ritchie, who is the first woman to lead the party
in its 40-year history, faces a daunting task in reviving the
SDLP's electoral fortunes, which have waned significantly among
nationalist voters in the post-John Hume/peace process era.
This drift has cost the SDLP the position of deputy First
Minister and rendered it a distant second behind rival Sinn
Fein, a bitter pill to swallow for the party that sees itself as
the architect of the peace and civil rights enjoyed in Northern
Ireland today. Since 1998, the SDLP's share of the vote has
declined from 22 percent to 15 percent, slipping from the perch
of largest nationalist party to holding only 16 Assembly seats
to Sinn Fein's 28. In addition to being the first female leader
of the party, Ritchie is also the first to be elected, as Mark
Durkan ran unopposed to succeed John Hume, as did Hume when he
succeeded founding leader Gerry Fitt. The party elected
Mid-Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone, who ran unopposed, to succeed
McDonnell as Deputy Leader.

Establishment, Youth Support

3. (C/NF) Ritchie received what appears to be decisive support
from former leader Mark Durkan as well as backing from a
majority of the SDLP's sitting MLAs at Stormont. Members of
Durkan's family and some of his closest supporters expressed to
us their joy as the results were announced to the conference,
which reflected what we were hearing the evening prior to the
vote count. The SDLP Youth wing had endorsed Ritchie as early
as late-October 2009, and its members served prominently as core
elements of her campaign team and as visible backers during the
party conference. In announcing its support for Ritchie, the
SDLP Youth cited her "courage as a Minister standing up to the
DUP, Sinn Fein, and the UDA, and her dedication and commitment
to a shared future" among its reasons for backing her candidacy.

4. (C/NF) The possibility of southern party Fianna Fail making
further inroads in SDLP-friendly districts in the North seems to
have spooked some among the SDLP's elected representatives and
boosted Ritchie's candidacy. Several party delegates told us
that they feared that McDonnell's leadership would render the
SDLP as merely a northern arm of Fianna Fail, a theme alluded to
in the speech to the conference by veteran MP Eddie McGrady.
(Note: In addition to Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Fianna Fail
sent approximately 15 members to attend the conference. Fianna
Fail currently does not run candidates in Northern Ireland, but
is moving toward establishing a greater presence in the north.)
This fear is not without foundation: long a discussion point
among members, several party stalwarts, including the
businessman son of a party founder, told us that an SDLP
link-up/merger with Fianna Fail would be welcome and the only
way to ensure a successful, all-island, and business-friendly
alternative to Sinn Fein.

Ritchie's Platform

5. (SBU/NF) Pledging to resurrect the SDLP to its former glory
as the largest party in Northern Ireland, Ritchie laid out a
platform designed to distinguish the SDLP from Sinn Fein and the
other parties across the sectarian divide. Citing the SDLP's
ability to lead the people peacefully to a shared society and
united Ireland, Ritchie said her vision for the party will focus
on being smarter on the economy, having a vision for a shared
society, and having a credible plan for Irish unity. Drawing a
contrast with McDonnell's sharp criticism of the party's
direction, Ritchie sought to remind the party faithful of what
they have accomplished thus far, to include: one person one
vote; an end to gerrymandering; fair allocation of housing; an
end to discrimination in the workplace; reform of policing;
power sharing in government; North-South cooperation, and parity
between the Catholic-Nationalist and Protestant-Unionist

6. (SBU/NF) The SDLP's newest MLA Conall McDevitt, who the party
appointed in December to fill the slot of illness-stricken South
Belfast MLA Carmel Hanna, told us that Ritchie's "social
democratic" credentials where decisive in gaining his and
others' support, as they see her as stronger on issues such as
public housing, health provision, education, and the
environment. McDevitt, who left his career as the managing
director of a public relations firm to take up the MLA role, had
formerly served on the SDLP communications team and is seen as a
rising star in the party.

McDonnell's Manifesto

7. (C/NF) Supporters of McDonnell, who many deem as more
competent in matters of business and the economy and a proponent
of radically restructuring the SDLP, worry that Ritchie will
preside over "more of the same" and lead the party into further
electoral irrelevance. A senior banking official and long-time
SDLP supporter told us that Ritchie's leadership of the party
would be a "disaster" in terms of the SDLP's approach to
business and the economy, but conceded that McDonnell's
sometimes "bull-in-the-china-shop" approach had put off many
party colleagues. In a recent meeting, an exasperated McDonnell
acknowledged to us that his focus on private sector development,
in contrast to Ritchie's more social democratic approach, had
unnerved some of the party faithful, but he saw it as the only
way to address NI's socio-economic woes and build
cross-community cohesion.

8. (C/NF) McDonnell also stressed the need for the SDLP to
rebuild the party's finances, starting with more robust
international fundraising. McDonnell felt that the SDLP could
make a serious dent into Sinn Fein's fundraising in the U.S. by
utilizing better on-the-ground organization to challenge Sinn
Fein on potentially damaging issues such as its plan, or lack
thereof, to support investment in Ireland. The SDLP could also
highlight Sinn Fein's connection to radical socialism and pariah
figures such as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and the HAMAS
government. McDonnell said, however, that he felt thwarted in
his desire to pursue a more robust fundraising presence by party

9.(C/NF) Viewing the party as currently existing on the scraps
of Nobel Peace prize winner John Hume's legacy, McDonnell felt
that the entire branch structure of the party had to be
reinvigorated, with more power being devolved to party's
grassroots level. This, he felt, would help strengthen the
SDLP's campaign structure and management by ensuring that local
concerns fed into the party's electoral strategies. He cited
electoral mismanagement as having cost the party several
closely-contested seats in recent elections. McDonnell also
believed that strengthening the branch level party structures
would boost ties with the business community and prove a
decisive edge over rival parties on issues related to the


10.(C/NF) Although Ritchie was the more palatable and
comfortable candidate for the majority of the SDLP, it is not
yet clear if she possesses either the political muscle or
innovative ideas to lead the party to its once-held position of
pre-eminence. Being both the first female party leader and
enjoying a strong connection with the youth of the party send
positive signals to the SDLP electorate, and her reported
penchant for organization and strategy should help align a party
that ran adrift in the post-Hume era. That said, her faltering
rhetorical skills and lack of business acumen may limit her
ability to take on Sinn Fein in areas in which it is potentially
vulnerable, such as education and the economy. Such an outcome
could hasten the advance of Fianna Fail northward as
nationalists potentially seek a more capable and robust
alternative to Sinn Fein, despite Fianna Fail's assertions that
it is not actively trying to grow its presence north of the
border. Regardless, Ritchie's success or failure will affect
the shape and future of centrist nationalism in Northern Ireland.

Ritchie Biography

11. (SBU) Ritchie, who serves as an MLA for South Down, was
appointed Minister for Social Development in May 2007 and is the
sole SDLP member of the Executive cabinet. Her political career
began in 1985 with her election to the Down District Council
followed by an appointment as Parliamentary Assistant and
Political Researcher to MP for South Down Eddie McGrady. She
was elected as MLA for South Down in the Northern Ireland
Assembly in both 2003 and 2007. She resigned her seat with the
Down District Council in 2009 in line with the SDLP's policy
against "double jobbing" among its elected representatives.

12. (SBU) Ritchie is 51 years old, and is a graduate of Queens
University Belfast. She courted controversy in 2007 when she
withheld public money destined for a loyalist community
transformation initiative following UDA-instigated violence in
areas outside Belfast. Despite earner her points among fellow
nationalist, the move was later deemed improper and the decision
quashed by a high court judge, but not before is caused disquiet
in the unionist community.

13. (C/NF) While Ritchie seems to connect well at a personal
level with both colleagues and constituents, she has appeared
wooden and stilted during interactions with Consulate officials.
She does not possess the rhetorical skills of her predecessor
Mark Durkan, and is burdened with what some deem an unpleasant
public speaking voice. Some of her public speaking engagements
in the run-up to the party conference, to include live radio
interviews, received poor reviews from both supporters and
opponents alike. According to her supporters, however, Ritchie
receives very high marks as a manager and organizer, and her
sometimes bumpy public appearances are more than offset by an
earnest and honest approach to politics.


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