Northern Ireland

Former SDLP leader now backs alliance with Fianna Fáil

Margaret Richie
Image caption Margaret Richie now backs an alliance with Fianna Fáil

A former SDLP leader who once warned "a merger" with Fianna Fáil would never happen "on her watch" said she now supports a new partnership with the Republic's main opposition party.

Margaret Ritchie is the first former SDLP leader to openly back an alliance.

It is expected to be confirmed by the two party leaders within weeks.

"I think people are looking for a new kind of politics that demands we do something which is different," she said.

Speaking to the BBC's The View, the former South Down MP insisted the new partnership will not result in a "take over" by Fianna Fáil.

'Circumstances change'

"It's about two like-minded parties who were both involved in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement and who now want to fight the challenges of Brexit," she said.

Back in 2010, Margaret Ritchie as SDLP leader spoke out against the move when addressing the Irish Labour Party conference in Galway.

She acknowledged that some in the party back then were in favour of a merger but she insisted it would not happen under her watch.

"The circumstances have changed since then," said Ms Ritchie pointing to Brexit and the collapse of the Stormont Assembly.

Image caption Is this what the future holds for SDLP leader Colum Eastwood if a merger materialises?

But there is opposition within the SDLP to the proposed new partnership with Fianna Fáil.

Matthew Corr, Chairman of SDLP Youth, told The View the move "goes against everything the party stands for".

"I joined the SDLP seven years ago," he said.

"I could have joined Fianna Fáil, but chose the SDLP as I am very much a social democrat not a conservative like those in Fianna Fáil.

"We have seen a decline in our vote but that's not to say its the end game, we still have 95,000 people out there who put their trust in us."

He said he feared what "starts out as a partnership could end with a Fianna Fáil take over".

The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Fianna Fáil leader Michael Martin have been discussing the proposed new partnership for the past year and are expected to take part in a joint event to launch the alliance within the next fortnight.

'National emergency'

They are expected to confirm the proposed partnership will focus on shared all Ireland policies and the challenges of Brexit.

But the move will have to be rubber stamped by the SDLP membership who will be called to a special event possibly next month to vote on the proposed partnership.

Speaking at Stormont today the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood refused to give any details about the proposed alliance but insisted the speculation was "wide of the mark".

He said the talks with Fianna Fáil were happening against the backdrop of a "national emergency" brought about by Brexit and the "stagnation of politics in the North".

He also insisted the SDLP has a long term future.

You can see more on The View on BBC One Northern Ireland at 22:40 BST on Thursday.

More on this story