Page last updated at 12:29 GMT, Sunday, 7 February 2010

Margaret Ritchie new SDLP leader

Margaret Ritchie is the new leader of the SDLP

Margaret Ritchie is the new leader of Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Miss Ritchie, the Assembly's Social Development Minister, replaces Mark Durkan, who remains MP for Foyle.

She defeated South Belfast MP Dr Alasdair McDonnell in a vote at the party conference. She is the first female leader of a major NI party.

"I have an organisational plan and an agenda for change that will make us stronger," she said.

Ms Ritchie's victory was met with a rapturous reception from the conference floor, with delegates giving the 51-year-old a prolonged standing ovation.

"We've got to back Margaret and drive the party forward," Mr McDonnell said.

Patsy McGlone becomes the party's new deputy leader.

The Republic of Ireland's Taoiseach Brian Cowen sent his congratulations to Miss Ritchie.

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

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

The SDLP is the second nationalist party in Northern Ireland and one of the most fervent supporters of the Good Friday Agreement.

It has lost ground in recent years to Sinn Fein.

The SDLP was born in 1970 out of the civil rights movement which came before the Troubles.

Many of its founding members, drawn mainly from the Nationalist Party, the National Democratic Party and Republican Labour, were key figures in the civil rights campaigns which grew around Northern Ireland as Catholics demanded an end to what they saw as sectarian government.

The SDLP made history in 1997 when one of its councillors, Alban Maginness, became the first nationalist to be appointed Lord Mayor of Belfast.

The party has historically had close links with Britain's Labour Party.

It takes a strong pro-Europe line and favours entry to the single currency.

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