Stormont Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie was today elected as the new leader of the SDLP.
The South Down Assembly member beat South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell in the contest to replace outgoing Mark Durkan at the head of the party.
Foyle MP Mr Durkan is stepping down from the top post after nine years at the helm.
The result of the vote to select his successor was announced at the final day of the party’s conference in Newcastle, Co Down.
Ms Ritchie won the leadership contest by 222 votes to 187.
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.
When a degree of order was restored, the party’s sole minister in the power-sharing executive made a bold pledge to revive the SDLP’s flagging fortunes and make it the largest party in the North.
“Together we can do this,” she vowed. “We can put our party back on top and for the sake of the people of the North we must put our party back on top.”
Noting that she had risen from a local councillor to party leader in three shorts years she assured members she was not satisfied yet.
“You may ask if there’s no end to this woman’s ambition?” she said. “Well there is – I want our party to rise again and I want to become First Minister.”
She paid tribute to Mr McDonnell and urged the party to get behind the efforts to ensure he retained his South Belfast parliamentary seat.
“I know Alasdair is going to retain South Belfast and everyone of us must put our shoulder to wheel to ensure that happens,” she added.
The losing candidate wished Ms Ritchie well in her new role and pledged to support her as she led the party into the future.
“Today’s Margaret’s day and I wish and I want to wish Margaret every success in her efforts to move this great party forward,” he said.
Mr McDonnell, 60, had vowed to undertake a radical internal shake-up of the party if he had won. He said it was clear the majority of the party had felt his proposals too radical or unnecessary.
“I hold firm in my conviction that we need to professionalise ourselves and move forward,” he added.
Yesterday Mr Durkan used an emotional farewell speech to colleagues to insist that while his party was central to ending the Troubles, it remained vital to building a new future for all.
He said the power-sharing government was being mismanaged by the DUP and Sinn Féin, while the scandal over MPs expenses eroded public confidence in politicians.
“People are crying out for change. Fed up with all the instability. Frustrated by the lack of delivery. Sceptical about more hype and spin,” he told delegates.
“We have to persuade them that the best antidote to DUP/Sinn Féin failure is a successful SDLP. Convince them that we offer a better way forward.
“That we are not just a party of deep principle, but of clear purpose and ready service as well. A real alternative with radical ambition.”
The former finance minister in the Stormont Executive and MP and MLA for Foyle is quitting to concentrate on his role at Westminster.