SDLP suspends O'Loan after merger call

Northern Ireland Assembly member Declan O‘Loan was today suspended from the SDLP after he called for a united nationalist party.

Margaret Ritchie withdrew the whip from the North Antrim representative after he said they should consider merging with rival party Sinn Féin.

It is understood it could be September before the controversial MLA will be reinstated at Stormont.

An SDLP spokesman said: “Following a meeting with party leader Margaret Ritchie this morning, the party whip has been removed from Declan O’Loan MLA until a future date, to be determined by the party leader.”

Mr O'Loan put out a press statement yesterday independently of the party authorities, who have been keen to stress their commitment to cross-community politics.

During the recent election campaign, Ms Ritchie spurned talks on electoral pacts and branded Sinn Féin efforts to broker co-operation sectarian.

Mr O’Loan said: “I believe that a major realignment of northern nationalism is now called for and I think that this means the formation of a new single nationalist party.

“The values of the SDLP and its ability to command respect and at least second preference votes across the whole community are not something that should be lost. In the interests of achieving Irish unity, that respect is vital.”

The DUP’s Jimmy Spratt accused him of hypocrisy after the SDLP said earlier that fielding a Fermanagh and South Tyrone unionist (DUP and Ulster Unionist) unity candidate at Westminster was a sectarian carve-up.

The SDLP retained three seats at Westminster to Sinn Féin’s five. It rejected Sinn Féin calls for its candidate Fearghal McKinney to stand aside in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, saying it would not participate in sectarian politics.

In South Belfast, SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell won convincingly after Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey stood aside.

Before retracting his statement, Mr O’Loan had said: “The election was marked by a high level of tactical voting within the nationalist electorate, and indeed between nationalism and unionism.

“Many nationalist voters are willing to exercise their votes interchangeably between the SDLP and Sinn Féin. Equally, it is clear that there remains solid support for what the SDLP stands for and that support is not going to change.”

Mr Spratt, who lost out in South Belfast, said it was the kettle calling the pot black.

“If it was sectarian from a unionist perspective (in Fermanagh), then it must be sectarian from a nationalist perspective. It is wonderful how fortunes change,” he said.

Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd said the SDLP was changing its views.

“At times the mixed messages coming from the SDLP on the issue of maximising nationalist representation are completely confusing,” he said.

Mr O‘Loan was suspended from the SDLP‘s Stormont Assembly group but continues to be a member of the party.

Sinn Féin Assembly member John O‘Dowd added: “The SDLP leader’s action in removing the party whip from Declan O’Loan today exposes that party leadership’s identity crisis.

“It would appear from comment by other grassroots SDLP members that there is a wish for democratic debate within that party about its future direction.”

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