Ritchie: “If the other parties (SF & DUP) go the other way, they will pay a heavy price…”

For those of you worried we’ve been obsessing too much on the wrong things, I should say it is part of our plans to attend the SDLP annual conference in Newcastle this year, in light of the fact they are about to change leaders… It remains to be seen whether that will have any effect on the main political game… They’ve been parked down a Peace Process™ alley for most of the last ten years… Today we have a piece from one of the two main candidates, Margaret Ritchie which focuses mainly on the party’s theoretical loss of an Executive seat (if the SF/DUP deal is done) leaving them out of the loop: By Margaret Ritchie MLA

Four decades ago, people from across the north united and marched in support of civil rights to end discrimination and build a fairer society. They were beaten off the streets, interned and harassed. Many of those brave people went on to form the SDLP.

While in many ways things have moved on a great deal, in 2010 the principles upon which our party was founded are as important and relevant as ever.

The DUP/ Sinn Fein axis stumbles from crisis to crisis. They are now trying to do a deal which will deny the nationalist people a seat in government to which they are democratically entitled. The truth is that a nationalist vote will be worth less than a unionist or Alliance one if the two largest parties set aside the Good Friday Agreement during these talks about Policing and Justice.

If the Good Friday Agreement is set aside by the DUP and Sinn Fein to deny the SDLP its seat, we will have lurched backwards, and the hard-won safeguards put in place to protect the rights of both sides of our community will have been abandoned.

That a nationalist MLA could be denied the Justice Ministry because Sinn Fein negotiated away this right is not just a denial of the SDLP’s mandate, it is an act of outstanding political and social discrimination- the epitome of inequality.

I fully support the devolution of Policing and Justice. However, efforts by the two biggest parties to hand the Alliance Party a seat at the Executive for which the have no mandate, is an echo of the discriminatory politics of the old Stormont regime. That’s why the SDLP wants d’Hondt to be run again in the new 11-seat Executive, which will include a Justice Minister, so nationalists and unionists can have confidence that this is an Executive which is fair and truly representative of both communities.

I want to send out a warning to the DUP and Sinn Fein. As a prospective Leader of the SDLP, I simply cannot accept nationalists being under-represented in the Executive. There is no possible justification for the current 6-4 unionist advantage being extended to 7-4 when by any democratic standards, it should close to 6-5. The SDLP will not tolerate such discrimination and we will not support any party, nationalist or unionist, who seeks to introduce it.

In addition the SDLP will not stay silent on a U-turn on Parading. Again the hard-earned progress on parading must not be lost to political expediency. The Parades Commission itself must not be sacrificed just so that the DUP can be seen to deliver a head on a plate to the hard-liners.

It is a fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein are increasingly shackled together in an atmosphere of shame and political dishonesty. Yet for all their cynicism we are actually at a juncture where the parties have the opportunity to move politics out of the mire.

But to do so they must do what is clearly right and just. They must say yes to the principle of respecting democratic party mandates and they must say no to any return to coat-trailing parades.

If they do so, under my leadership, they shall have the support and co-operation of the SDLP.

If the parties go the other direction, another cynical carve-up, further corrupting our democracy and ultimately undermining devolution, then they will pay a heavy price. The political tide is turning, so utterly fed-up are people with the failure of the DUP/Sinn Fein at the Centre.

If the parties go the cynical route they will also face determined opposition from the SDLP. We will not support a deal on just any terms.

As prospective Leader of the SDLP, I am, in consultation with the party membership, prepared to consider all options in the period ahead.

The SDLP is instinctively committed to partnership and progress and that will not change. But if the DUP and Sinn Fein continue to poison the Executive with cynicism and selfishness, then the question arises– can SDLP supporters accept a government that treats them like second-class citizens again?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty