Carmel Hanna to retire from Assembly

News came through yesterday afternoon that the SDLP’s South Belfast MLA Carmel Hanna is to retire from the Assembly.

Originally from Warrenpoint, Carmel was elected a councillor for the Balmoral Ward on Belfast City Council in 1997 (a position she recently resigned from) and became an MLA the following year. She was later appointed Employment and Learning Minister at Stormont before suspension.

Outgoing SDLP Leader Mark Durkan paid tribute to Carmel, saying: “Carmel Hanna has served her constituents of South Belfast, the people of Northern Ireland, the wider SDLP with dignity, determination and dedication during a distinguished political career as a councillor, Assembly Member and as a Minister.

“During this time she has remained steadfastly committed to social democracy and peaceful politics.”

So, what now? Well, a selection convention is due to take place on 9 December to find her replacement. Under recent changes to rules, the old system whereby prospective MLAs submitted a list of possible replacements should they leave office or die has been replaced by a simple co-option mechanism. We’ve already seen Danny Kinahan replace David Burnside this way.

Once the party selects Carmel’s successor, it’ll simply be case of them taking her place at a time of her and her party’s choosing.

At the minute there appears to be two key candidates- Balmoral Branch Chair and Slugger contributor Conall McDevitt and local councillor Bernie Kelly.

Conall has the experience of being a key party staffer at the time of the Good Friday Agreement and currently works as MD of a PR firm. As someone who enjoys a high media profile, he’ll be hoping to tap into the idea of party renewal and the promotion of new faces who want to take the SDLP forward in the wake of its fortieth anniversary next year.

Meanwhile, Bernie Kelly, who serves on the party’s Executive, will most likely focus on the fact that she has experience as a public representative in South Belfast as a councillor since 2005, and was Deputy Lord Mayor in 2007/08.

As yet, there is no word of anyone else running. Of course, there’s nothing to say that candidates must originate from the Balmoral Branch- there may well be others in other parts of South Belfast such as Cromac and Ormeau who fancy their chances.

Whatever the outcome, it’ll be an interesting aside to the leadership contest that will continue through this period until party conference in February next year.