Margaret Ritchie: DUP cannot be the only voice representing Northern Ireland anymore
After an absence of two and half years, the voice of Democratic Irish Nationalism will return to Westminster when Margaret Ritchie takes her seat in the Lords. The former SDLP leader tells Gary Connor why she has chosen to be a non-affiliated peer – and how her politics are all about unity
On the morning of Friday 9 June 2017, Margaret Ritchie, SDLP MP for South Down for seven years, found herself out of a job – alongside her two party colleagues who also lost their seats, casualties of Theresa May’s ill-fated decision to call an early general election. That deprived Northern Ireland of nationalist representation at Westminster during a critical time in the Brexit debate – particularly when a majority of its voters had actually voted in favour of Remain. A desire to ensure all sides of the argument are represented in Parliament is leading to her re-entry into politics.
It’s been several weeks since it was announced in Mrs May’s resignation honours that Ritchie would become a non-affiliated life peer and will take her seat on 5 November. When we speak, she’s still just Margaret. Her title – Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick – was announced a few weeks later. It’s a nod both to her home area and how Ritchie sees her role in public life.
“St Patrick himself began and ended his ministry there, and I believe he’s a unifying figure who espouses reconciliation. That’s where my politics is – all about unity.” Ritchie demonstrated this memorably back in 2010, when she became the first leader of a nationalist party to wear a poppy; an often-controversial symbol in Northern Ireland.
She will use her peerage as an opportunity to argue for democratic accountability from within, after voting for and arguing in favour of reform of the Lords while a member of the House of Commons. Ritchie insists that she won’t be seduced by its grandeur and symbolic trappings and will refuse to take a coat of arms.
“I simply want to do a job.”
Margaret Ritchie decided to resign from her old party when she accepted the offer to join the Lords, to avoid them having “a management issue on their hands”, because of their long-standing convention of not taking seats there. “I won’t be joining any other parties,” she insists. “I will be annunciating those viewpoints of social democracy and democratic Irish nationalism espoused by the SDLP, in the House of Lords.” She remains involved in the party locally, even though she’s no longer a member.
Joining the SDLP in 1980, she stood for election for the first time in 1985 and joined Down District Council. She was first elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2003, joined the Commons in 2010 and led her party between February 2010 and November 2011. It’s unsurprising after such a long political career to hear her describing it as “a wretch for me to leave”. I wondered whether there had been any criticism locally for deciding to join the Lords.
“I’ve had no personal criticism,” she says. “There’s been a lot of support for me, from ordinary people in the street, and from people right across the community, coming up to me at events and meeting me while I’ve been out doing my shopping.”
She believes that support is drawn from the frustration that people feel their views have not been represented in Parliament.
“The only voice there, apart from Lady Sylvia Hermon, is the DUP, which doesn’t represent the majority view of the people in Northern Ireland, and Sinn Féin, who do not take their seats. That’s not good enough.”
“In unprecedented times you have to take action, and I view this as me taking action.”
Since losing her seat, Margaret Richie has been working as a lobbyist, and has taken voluntary roles on housing association and arts boards. In the midst of having to adjust to a change of career, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having gone through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she is now a ‘cancer survivor’.
“I suppose you take on a slightly different view of life,” Ritchie says. She admits that dealing with her illness whilst trying to be an MP at the same time would have been a difficult prospect.
“The first thing you have to deal with is the trauma of the diagnosis. But when you get over that and get on with the treatment, I saw it as another project. It’s the only way that I could deal with it.”
Contrary to recent criticism that new members of the House of Lords often join and contribute very little to its proceedings, Ritchie intends to play an active part in parliamentary life.
“I’ll be requesting my maiden speech fairly early on,” she says. “I’ll participate in legislation and I want to join all-party groups. I also have an interest in the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and I think there may be a vacancy there.”
Unsurprisingly, Ritchie’s focus, at least for the time being, is likely to be Brexit. We speak the day after Boris Johnson had unveiled his latest plans to get around the issue of the backstop. Within a matter of hours, they look to have unravelled. She says the proposals are created by people who don’t really seem to care or represent the area.
“Our issues are secondary to their concerns,” she says. So do they represent a naivety about how Northern Ireland works?
“I wouldn’t call it naivety,” she replies. “I would say that the Conservatives are just thinking about number one – themselves – and the agenda of the European Research Group. Their Euroscepticism has led to this dysfunctionality; in Parliament, outside of Parliament, and it has caused a fracturing of very sound relationships.”
When Margaret Ritchie returns to Westminster, so too does a nationalist voice. Lord Caine, a Conservative peer and former Northern Ireland special advisor recently told The House that it was a “matter of regret” that nationalism had not been represented over the past few years. Ritchie thinks the absence of a Remain voice in the Commons and the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive has not been functioning has created “division and marginalisation” which “doesn’t get you anywhere”.
“When people come to you looking for a resolution to their problem, it’s the role of politicians to provide solutions. People have been failed and there has been a total abdication of responsibility.”
Beyond Brexit, Ritchie is incredibly frustrated about Northern Ireland’s prolonged period of political limbo. She cites education and health as particular areas that desperately need ministers in place to make policy decisions. “I’ve been in and out of hospitals and I’ve seen how hard the medical staff have to work in difficult circumstances. The prevailing politics do not help their situation.”
“Tory Euroscepticism has led to this dysfunctionality and it has caused a fracturing of very sound relationships”
She sees no resolution to the current impasse – beyond staying in the EU – than the backstop. In the negotiations, she argues that the Irish government has done nothing wrong and has merely articulated what is needed to protect the economy and business.
“I remember the SDLP, way back in 2016, arguing that Northern Ireland needed a special status because of our unique relationship with the south of Ireland. The backstop represents that special relationship.”
The bipartisan relationship between Britain and Ireland is now fractured, Ritchie continues, and the Good Friday Agreement is breaking down and “at risk”. She desperately wants the political institutions to be re-established. “There’s so much that we fought to achieve, and we don’t want any of that to be further dismembered or dismantled.”
“The Good Friday Agreement, in many ways, was modelled on the European Union. It’s a delicate peace and political process,” she says. “The DUP, along with the British government have been unwinding it. It’s just unbelievable what has happened.