Ritchie's SDLP 'Transparency' Pledge

Margaret Ritchie made history yesterday by becoming the first woman elected to lead the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Ms Ritchie, the Stormont Executive's Social Development Minister, replaces Foyle MP Mark Durkan at the helm of the nationalist party.

The 51-year-old South Down Assemblywoman beat SDLP deputy leader, and South Belfast MP, Dr Alasdair McDonnell in a vote during the party's annual conference in Newcastle.

Ms Ritchie is the first woman to lead a dominant Northern Ireland political party. Dawn Purvis currently leads the fringe-loyalist Progressive Unionist Party, serving as its sole MLA.

In a proposition paper, disclosed to www.4NI.co.uk news last week, Ms Ritchie put forward radical changes under her leadership mandate.

Ms Richie, (pictured here with 4NI's political reporter, Paul Reilly), outlined several steps aimed at restoring "the publics' faith" in Northern Ireland politics.

This will include the SDLP voluntarily publishing the names of all political donations over the threshold of £5,000 from 1 April.

Ms Ritchie will also call for a review of the Planning Legislation to ensure that planning officials and elected representatives publicly detail all their contacts with developers and resident groups on any particular planning application.

"There is no legitimate reason why there shouldn’t be complete transparency in the planning process," she said.

"If everything is being done above board, then there's nothing to hide. If anything unscrupulous is going on, the public deserves to know."

Ms Ritchie continued: "I am committed to transparency in politics, and as SDLP Leader and I will take a lead to ensure that an atmosphere of openness becomes the norm rather than the exception in Northern Ireland."

Yesterday's leadership announcement prompted congratulations from across the entire island of Ireland.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen said: "In assuming the office of SDLP leader, she follows in one of the most distinguished lines in Irish political history.

"I am sure she will continue that proud tradition into the future."

The SDLP is the province's second pro-united Ireland party, having lost electoral ground to Sinn Fein over the past decade.

Speaking to party delegates yesterday, Ms Ritchie said: "I have an organisational plan and an agenda for change that will make us stronger."

She refused to be drawn on whether the party still backed her nomination for the cross-community position of Stormont justice minister.


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