One of the North’s longest serving MPs, Eddie McGrady of the nationalist SDLP, revealed he is standing down at the general election.
News that the 74-year-old veteran is to step down sparked speculation that the party’s newly appointed leader Margaret Ritchie, his former parliamentary assistant, may contest his South Down seat.
Mr McGrady has served as an MP since 1987, but last night he told a constituency meeting in Newcastle, Co Down, that he will retire from politics at the forthcoming election.
The party declined to comment on speculation Ms Ritchie might seek SDLP permission to stand for the Westminster constituency.
She resigned her role as a local government councillor last year under SDLP plans to phase out ’double jobbing’, but already serves an Assembly member, government minister and party leader.
But as Mr McGrady announced he was bowing out, he said: “It has been a great honour and privilege to serve the people of Down for 50 years as councillor, Assembly Member and Member of Parliament.
“Since my election I have always endeavoured to represent all my constituents to the best of my ability and I will always be grateful for all their support and kindness over the years.
“At local government level, then in the Assembly, and now for the last 23 years in Westminster, the SDLP has delivered for the people of South Down.
“We are now entering a new phase of politics on this island, within the SDLP and throughout South Down.
“Under a new leadership the SDLP will now embark on a new era of politics. I am extremely proud to have served under the banner of the SDLP but now I believe is the right time to step aside and hand the torch over to someone else.”
He added: “I have every confidence the party in selecting my replacement, will choose wisely. I have spent 23 years as an MP representing all the people of South Down and democratic Irish Nationalism in the House of Commons.
“I know if SDLP leaders had not been there to challenge the British Government, to act in the interests of the Irish people, Nationalists and Unionists, and to demand justice and equality for all we would not have peace and no prospect of a better future.
“In my opinion, Northern Ireland requires strong representation at the highest level in Westminster. It falls on the shoulders of the SDLP to speak up for all in that forum and it requires the presence of our senior leaders to do so.
“We will face many big issues in the Westminster election. There is a possibility of a hung parliament while public spending cuts are a stark reality.
“The people of South Down know the value of electing an MP who will take their seat and work on their behalf.
“And I too will continue to work for the SDLP and I pledge to give our candidate my whole hearted support.”