Yesterday Margaret Ritchie announced that she would be stepping down as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland after less than two years on the job. The party had performed poorly in the election for the Northern Ireland Assembly in May and her deputy, Patsy McGlone, had announced that he would be challenging her in the mandatory leadership election. Her previous challenger, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, is expected to also contest the election.
Ritchie is the fourth leader of the SDLP. The party was formed in August 1970 out of the remnants of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), the body that formulated the strategy of civil rights marches as a means of protesting anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland at the start of The Troubles in 1968. The SDLP was a de facto shotgun marriage of NICRA and two representatives from two other parties, Republican Labour and the Northern Ireland Labour Party, to unite all six of the nationalist members of the Stormont Parliament (the forerunner of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was closed down in March 1972). The party advocated a united Ireland and non-violence as well as an end to discrimination and social democracy. The first leader chosen was Gerry Fitt, who was the only Westmister (British parliament) MP out of the six founding members. But the de facto leader of the party during its first decade was John Hume. In 1979 Fitt was ousted after he advocated cooperating with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in support of voluntary power sharing. Hume took over the party and remained the leader for the next 22 years. During that time he launched the Northern Ireland peace process with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and the Irish government in Dublin.
Hume voluntarily retired as leader of the SDLP in 2001 and named his protege, Mark Durkan, as his successor. Durkan presided over the decline of the party as the other nationalist party, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, overtook it. This first occured in local government elections in 2001 and was then confirmed in the next Westminster election. Durkan benefitted from being the annoited successor to the charismatic Hume. Durkan then stepped down as leader in early 2010 at age fifty to concentrate on serving as MP for his Foyle constituency that he had inherited from Hume. Ritchie, the MP for South Down, beat McDonnell to emerge as the new leader.
The SDLP's decline is due to a number of factors. First, it has never developed an efficient electoral machinery for fighting elections. This really hurt when going up against Sinn Fein, which benefitted on election day from the help of the military wing of the Republican Movement. Sinn Fein and the IRA had developed a very efficient party machinery that had people impersonating voters--the old, sick, and alcoholic who didn't vote--at the polls. Second, once the peace process got going many nationalists wanted to reward Sinn Fein and the IRA for ending the war. So they lent their votes to the Republicans, and eventually the loan became permanent. Third, the British government under Prime Minister Tony Blair had a policy of appeasement toward the Republicans in order to keep the peace process on track. Sinn Fein became expert on extorting tribute from London in exchange for doing what they had already signed up to do in the Good Friday Agreement. As a result the two moderate parties who had negotiated the GFA, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, suffered at the hands of the electorate. Unionist voters punished them for the IRA's failure to disarm and the British policy of appeasement; nationalist voters rewarded Sinn Fein for the benefits that they extracted at (offstage) gunpoint from the British. Here is an article (go to the link on the site for the Belfast Telegraph article by Liam Clarke) discussing the problem's of the party under Ritchie's leadership.
The UUP has actually declined in recent years more sharply than has the SDLP. The only real solution to the problems of both parties is by their weaning themselves from the teets of the Northern Ireland Office and the Executive by going into opposition. This is difficult because the Good Friday Agreement was designed to get all parties to participate and share power rather than to provide voters with efficient democratic government. The way to do this is to form a pact between the two parties in which both go into opposition and present themselves to voters as an alternative government with their own policies. This might prove difficult, as, according to Clarke, those who elected Ritchie last time wanted the party to remain the same and not adapt to new circumstances. The GFA should also be modified to allow for an official opposition as at Westminster. The mother of parliaments has given birth to a bastard child and it needs to be restrained and reformed.