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Speech by Margaret Ritchie to SDLP Annual Conference, (6 November 2010)

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Text: Margaret Ritchie ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Margaret Ritchie, then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), at the SDLP annual conference in the Ramada Hotel, Belfast, (Saturday 6 November 2010)


"Lord Mayors of Belfast and Derry, Ministers, Distinguished guests, colleagues, friends.

It is a pleasure to be here to deliver my first conference address as SDLP leader.

It is truly an honour to follow in the footsteps of Mark Durkan as Party Leader. He has served us with great courage and ability.

Mark’s inspirational performance in the Bloody Sunday Westminster debate shows what a powerful force he will continue to be for this Party.

I also want to congratulate Mark on once again, despite unfavourable boundary changes, winning Foyle for the Party.

And I want to congratulate Alasdair too of course. A stunning result in South Belfast, our highest ever vote there and our highest ever vote share. Alasdair has turned a Unionist stronghold into a solid SDLP seat and he has done so by a combination of an excellent constituency strategy and sheer hard work on the ground. I congratulate his dedicated staff also.

I think we did OK in South Down too. The dedicated teamwork that delivered us victory for Westminster is I believe, going to deliver 3 SDLP seats in South Down in May.

I want to pay tribute to our one outgoing MP, my good friend and colleague Eddie McGrady who epitomises SDLP commitment to public service. Westminster's loss is our gain and even though he has given 50 years of service we will be keeping Eddie busy.

Thanks to all of you for the work and commitment that delivered our Westminster victories and special mention to our election director Patsy McGlone and Deputy Director Conall McDevitt.

And, of course, as well as following Mark, I also follow in the footsteps of... 'Ireland’s Greatest.’

Even in retirement he continues to do us proud.

Some critics have asked me 'When is the SDLP going to stop going on about their former leader'.

The answer to that, conference, is never.

We will never stop drawing inspiration from the greatest to have walked among us.

And this latest recognition, while celebrating the achievements of a great person, also reminds us of the place this Party still occupies in the politics of this island and in the hearts of the Irish people.

The work of the SDLP is a noble calling. We bring unique values to Irish politics. We must never forget that. And it is our unfinished mission I want to talk about today.

But I’m not going to stand here and pretend that everything is rosy in the garden. Where our opponents could sectarianise the election our vote got squeezed.

We should acknowledge the contribution of Fearghal McKinney who left his successful media career to fly the SDLP flag in his home county of Fermanagh. As things turned out, it was something of a baptism of fire – but Fearghal will be back, stronger than ever.

Compare the determination and idealism of Fearghal in this election with the despicable; is that a strong enough word? Yes, despicable, cynicism of Alex Maskey, and you see the essential difference between the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Mr Maskey condemned an agreed unionist candidate in Fermanagh/South Tyrone as a sordid sectarian pact and then turned round and offered the same to the SDLP in South Belfast. He got his answer. There can be no place for such hypocrisy in the new politics of the North.

When Gerry Adams asked me to consider an electoral pact with his Party I was unimpressed. My new found friend made a speech only a few hours later, in which he attacked the SDLP some 25 times. His offer was from start to finish a stunt.

And I told him directly - You cannot create a better society in the North by driving people into the sectarian trenches.

It was absolutely right to send him packing.

We are moving on to the next horizon and we are not interested in the tired tribal politics of the past.

So next time Gerry, don’t even ask!

Nonetheless, after Westminster, and indeed before, there was concern about our Party. About how others had stolen our political clothes. And there was the concern that we are not an all-island Party.

We have heard various suggestions about how we can put this right – all sorts of mergers and alliances – and even the suggestion of a single nationalist Party in the North.

So let me deal with these in turn.

An SDLP all-island alliance

I have recognised that in the long term there may well be significant 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.

The SDLP still has a hugely important task here in the North to help us all move on and to reach for the next horizon.

We will continue our very positive relations and friendships with all three major Parties in the South. I have met with Brian, Enda and Eamon and they all fully understand and respect our position. It is a source of great satisfaction not only that all three Parties have senior representatives in attendance at our conference - but that they are participating in the actual business of this event.

The three southern Parties and the SDLP are all from that same social democratic centre of Irish Politics and Irish Nationalism. We are part of the same political family. They are, and always will be, very welcome among us.

Let me turn then to the suggestion of a single nationalist Party in the North.

It is true that others have adopted SDLP policies as their own and we no longer have the obvious differentiator of non-violence.

There are therefore, technically, two constitutional nationalist Parties in the North.

But just because you hear someone say there is little difference between us doesn’t mean you should believe it. There is in fact a world of difference between the SDLP and Sinn Fein. A world of difference. Indeed beyond the common goal of Irish Unity, we could not be more different!

That is why I rejected such a proposition in the strongest of terms when it arose publicly. Just as I did the suggestion of an electoral pact. For there is no credible argument for an electoral pact with Sinn Fein. Even at a tactical level the downside would far outweigh any benefits. And how can we enter any tribal or sectarian pacts that would simply undermine everything we stand for?

The SDLP is a Democratic Party. Sinn Fein is a centrally controlled authoritarian Party. We go through the bumpy democratic process of selecting our candidates (here and there) – in another Party you get a tap on the shoulder and told its time you went off to write a book!

And we in the SDLP are Progressive Nationalists. Our fundamental instinct is to look forward with hope and optimism and creativity – and to plot a path that allows everyone to move on. Progressive.

Our opponents are not progressive. They are chained to the past, resentful in the present and offer little hope for the future. If I’m labelling us progressive, then I’ve got to categorise the other so-called constitutional nationalists as stuck in the past.

And the differences come through when you look at the things that really matter to people.


Take jobs and the economy: The progressive nationalism of the SDLP says that we want to make a success of the Northern Ireland economy. Other nationalists don’t care about the Northern Ireland Economy because their sole obsession is waiting for the time when Northern Ireland is over.

But the old nationalist ambivalence about the Northern Ireland economy cannot be justified. We must make this place as good as it can be for the people who live here now. An economy that delivers jobs and prosperity for all our people. Not later. Now.

Sinn Fein are nowhere on economic policy or thinking. They are regarded as a joke South of the border and they have a leader who said the economy was ‘not important.’

Well tell that to the thousands of people, particularly in our construction industry, who have lost their jobs. And the thousands more who live in fear of unemployment.

Our opponents, despite Mitchel McLaughlin’s isolated protestations, are at best ambivalent about the Northern Ireland economy. Indeed they cannot even bring themselves to utter the words ‘northern Ireland’.

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

We are a progressive social democratic Party on the economy – focused on jobs and bettering the lives of everyone – but not afraid to support enterprise and investment and those who create wealth by their talent and hard work. Like the man who put this hotel here.

I’ll come back to the economy later.


Perhaps the biggest difference between the two nationalisms is the view they take of the future of society itself. SDLP progressive nationalism says we want a Shared Society. That means a society that is not only non-violent but which welcomes and embraces different traditions and actively sets out to end segregation and division. We are serious about building a normal society where people do not have to live in single identity neighbourhoods and where our children do not have to grow up worrying about the ‘other side’. Where everyone feels safe walking down the street and no community is in the grip of paramilitaries of any kind.

Our nationalist opponents simply do not believe in this kind of society. They are happy to maintain our current divisions and abnormal segregation. They use and abuse our Irish culture as a political weapon and if scratched are every bit as sectarian as their opposite numbers in loyalism.

They have no vision for making the North a better place. Indeed deep down they have no desire to share with people from the unionist tradition.

SDLP Progressive nationalism is more confident, more optimistic, and more ready to engage wholeheartedly across the divide. We are not afraid to say 'Northern Ireland' or to encounter a member of the British Royal family at a function. How ridiculous was it for Martin McGuinness to refuse to go to a function celebrating the grand slam success of our all-island Rugby team - because the Queen was also in attendance! I was happy to go and congratulate our team and I had a very pleasant chat with the Queen. Honestly she’s not the least bit threatening. Well I didn’t think so.

Just as progressive nationalists can accept where we are today, so also can we accept the realities of our history while others keep attempting to rewrite it. We therefore do not feel the need to airbrush out of history the sacrifice of many thousands of Irish Nationalists who fought in the two world wars. We accept the realities of our journey and we want to improve on the past.

I know also that some people in our Party have reservations about some of the language we use around a ‘Shared Future’. Its not that they don’t believe in reconciliation and the two traditions building a better future in the North together – its that they are worried, well,… that its sounds a bit alliancey….

Indeed one particular commentator - himself stuck in the past - remarked that the SDLP’s response to Sinn Fein moving on to SDLP ground was to jump onto Alliance Party ground. Utter Utter Rubbish.


Which brings me to Irish Unity. We in the SDLP remain absolutely, unambiguously committed to a United Ireland. Where the border disappears and where we are no longer governed by Britain. It is, without qualification, our number one political objective.

Can I be any more definitive about that?

Incidentally, the last time I checked it wasn’t the central policy plank of the Alliance Party.

Again, unlike our Nationalist opponents, we are credible on the issue.

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.

Our Strategy is to persuade people of the benefits of a United Ireland.

We can take away many of the fears of those who remain to be persuaded, by providing concrete assurances that, in the event of Unity, the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, including power-sharing, would remain in place.

Also we offer an acknowledgement that the challenge for Irish nationalists is to make the case to unionists in a way that has never been done before.

What happens to the NHS in our vision of a United Ireland? What about the social welfare system or the police service? How do we secure a long term financial underpinning for a region ready to step away from the UK? These are serious questions requiring serious answers. And because we are serious and our plans are credible we will come up with the answers.

Where is our opponents’ strategy on Irish Unity?

Standing around waving flags, resenting Northern Ireland and its institutions, and hoping somehow, to wake up some morning and find Ireland united – is not a strategy.

Nor is it credible to claim the magical day will arrive in 2016, because that year is the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Yet that is what they expect their supporters to believe.

And its on the record. 2016. Not only has Gerry Adams said it – but Martin McGuinness has quoted Gerry Adams saying it.

But nobody told Mitchel. Just like he is isolated in pretending his Party is serious about the economy, he is alone in trashing the 2016 promise. That his why he told the DFP Assembly Committee that he wanted a question on future Irish Unity to be put in the census questionnaire - for the 2021 census!

I’m told Gerry is now trying to wriggle away from his promise of Unity by 2016. He’s claiming he never said it. So is he saying that Martin McGuinness is fibbing about him?

But then ability to remember what he did in the past is not Gerry’s best known quality.

Whatever way you look at it they have no credibility about the issue of Unity. They genuinely do not know what to do. By contrast, the SDLP has a credible strategy and a successful track record of persuading people about the political future that lies ahead – and finding the path.

Friends surely after what I have said there can be no-one in this room who can think we have much in common with our nationalist opponents? We are a progressive Party they are still a protest Party.

On jobs and the economic welfare of our people we have serious ideas. They have not.

On building a better society for our children we have genuine commitment – they want the division to continue.

And on Irish Unity we are credible and they are still waving flags.

I have said it before: The battles of the past are over. The only battle now is the battle of ideas. And the SDLP is well placed for that. We can provide the roadmap for the future.

And because our opponents are bereft of any real ideas - and because they’ve already played their ‘toys out of the pram’ card – they are going nowhere.

In fact they have little to sustain them except the continued nurse-maiding by the two Governments.

I’m not going to criticise the two governments for the constant concessions to the DUP and Sinn Fein where at times, principle and fairness were jettisoned to get the two Parties over the line. All I’m going to say is that they don’t need to keep doing it.

It is time for the two Governments to recalibrate from the default position which supports DUP and Sinn Fein demands every time and which has done untold damage to centre-ground politics in the North.

You don’t need to do this anymore. You have got them both into the tent and over the line. Please do not stand in the way as the centre ground recovers.

Although we have some measure of stability, the only credit we can give to this Assembly, in this mandate, is that it has survived and has set us up to do better next time.

So how are we going to do better, for all our people, next time?

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.

Whether anyone likes it or not, we all accept the SDLP-inspired power-sharing nature of our Government. So I say to unionists, we need to make it the best it can be. And isn’t it likely to work better if the centre Parties were back at the heart of it? We want to work these institutions in a true spirit of partnership and we are ready to bring genuine goodwill and pragmatism to the table. 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?

I honestly believe that the SDLP and fair-minded unionists could resolve the many issues that were too much for the DUP and Sinn Fein. We could, I believe, easily resolve the crisis in education and deliver the RPA to name just two.

This DUP Sinn Fein controlled executive has performed abysmally.

It has run the four Party Executive as a two Party carve-up. And it is still doing so.

After 3 years OFMDFM has produced a so called Cohesion Sharing and Integration strategy which is an utterly cynical exercise from two Parties who don’t want to share anything.

The same department has done absolutely nothing with the Maze. Successive DUP Ministers have failed on RPA and Planning Reform and job creation to add to earlier debacles on victims and parading and so much else. Other Ministers have presided over calamity in the water service, farmers queuing up for days for application forms, the EU fining us for fiddling and a performance on education bordering on the surreal.

DFP has bungled PFI and presided over three years of financial reallocations based more on party-political carve-up than need or best use.

And we now have the dissidents. And let’s be clear what that is. Dissidents aren’t some new social or political phenomena; they are the direct legacy of Sinn Fein’s failed war. When are they going to admit that what is wrong now was always wrong.

And we have had poor leadership in the Executive. A First Minister who refuses to meet the Queen because the Pope might be there and a Deputy first Minister who won’t meet the Pope because the Queen might be there. How is that representing our government on the big stage? They should be ashamed.

The executive has also been afraid to take any difficult decisions and it has failed utterly to respond to the economic downturn. We alone produced a strong response to the downturn 18 months ago in our paper “New Priorities in Difficult Times” and this alone has caused the DUP and Sinn Fein to adopt a new approach to the economic debate... Their new ideology can be called “Magpie Economics” - they wait for the shiny new ideas produced by the SDLP and then fly off and claim then as their own.

But Peter Robinson has had two ideas on the economy that he alone can claim. The first idea was his decision to freeze the regional rate. And the second idea was his decision to reverse the decision to freeze the regional rate. He was so pleased with himself he even put the first idea on his official Christmas card. How he exactly he is going to advertise his complete U-turn I don't know.

Declan and his team will shortly launch our latest paper which will set out how we can get through this budget crisis and at the same time kick-start the economy.

And I want everyone to know that our budget proposals will be unique. They will be focused on jobs, particularly those we can develop along the lines of the green new deal – a social partnership blueprint, which the Executive must embrace. But importantly, although we will identify tough decisions that need to be taken, our plan will guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies in the public service.

We will remove the fear of unemployment from public sector workers. Many hard-working people are worried sick about losing their jobs and perhaps their homes. Or be unable to afford to send their kids to college. The SDLP plan will allay those fears. It is quite wrong that in all the fretting about our budgetary situation that the public sector workforce has been a political punch bag.

There has of course been one recent outstanding success in the Stormont Executive. It is a success called Alex Attwood. In a very short time he has gripped the DSD brief and been the only champion of the poor and vulnerable, around that Executive table.

Alex has shown great authority in Housing and welfare reform and he is the only Northern Ireland minister to have taken the cause of the North to London and sought real concessions for our people. And he has also shown a great personal example at this time of hardship for many.

In addition Alex has had the tenacity to expose the dirty dealing of the two carve-up Parties in OFMDFM. Disgracefully, when money is so tight, they are cooking up what I can only describe as a 'community slush fund' so that under the guise of helping disadvantaged communities – which is DSD’s area of expertise, not theirs – they will be directing money to those groups they like most. I’m telling you now Peter and Martin, you will end up in court over this.

So, friends and colleagues, we have two Parties running the North who are not fit to do the job. Our people deserve better.

So it is time for us to step up. It is no exaggeration to say that we are needed at the centre of government. Who else will bring the ideas and creativity along with determination and integrity?

It must be the SDLP, the progressive nationalists, the Party of ideas.

This is a time of opportunity for the SDLP.

So each of us must step up to turn our political ambitions into reality in May. Our young leaders especially.

And we must be confident and committed in our mission. And we must never be deterred by criticism or fear. There is nothing for us to be afraid off.

You have unique talents and political values. You can achieve anything you choose. We do not need to be a Party of bearded gurus, trendy intellectuals or the darlings of the media or the blogosphere.

We just need to be right. And we need to be determined. And you know we are both of those.

Hard work will do the rest.

Friends, we are about to embark on a new and challenging phase of our politics, as we set out to reach the next horizon.

Our People are ready to move forward. They want us to light the way.

They want us to reach for the sky.

This is a time for a new generation of SDLP leaders.

This is a time for ideas.

This is a time for new politics.

This is the time for leadership.

This is the time for the SDLP.

Thank you."


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