SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has ruled out the SDLP merging with Fianna Fáil to become a powerful, all-Ireland political party.

In her first conference as SDLP leader, Ritchie said her party would continue to have "very positive relations and friendships" with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labour as all four parties were "part of the same political family". However, she added: "Any merger with a major southern party would effectively mean the end of the SDLP and I believe with that, crucially, the disappearance of the unique brand values we bring to Irish politics. So we have ruled it out for now."

Several Fianna Fáil cumann have been formed in the North and Ritchie's speech will disappoint those who hoped for a merger. Addressing several hundred delegates in Belfast, Ritchie launched a stinging attack on Sinn Féin.

She referred to Gerry Adams' offer of an electoral pact for the Westminster elections earlier this year: "My new-found friend made a speech only a few hours later in which he attacked the SDLP 25 times.

"His offer was from start to finish a stunt. It was absolutely right to send him packing. We are not interested in the tired tribal politics of the past. Next time Gerry, don't even ask!"

Ritchie claimed Sinn Féin was "nowhere on economy policy", remaining suspicious of investors and entrepreneurs and resentful of profit. The party was "regarded as a joke south of the border [with] a leader who said the economy was 'not important'".

She claimed Sinn Féin had no credible plan to achieve Irish unity: "Standing around waving flags and hoping somehow to wake up some morning and find Ireland united is not a strategy."