SDLP leader Mark Durkan was forced to announce his intention to step down yesterday by colleagues who made it apparent that the knives were out for him, it has emerged.
The Derry MP had to choose between his Westminster seat and the party leadership in the Belfast assembly after he accepted that holding the two positions was not possible.
Once seen as John Hume’s political protege and natural successor, Mr Durkan was also seen to have damaged his standing by engaging in ill-advised political solo runs.
He controversially backed a return to majority (unionist) rule last year in a move seen as a desperate attempt to make the SDLP move relevant in the context of power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
The party then failed to make any headway in this year’s European elections in the Six Counties, while its nationalist rivals, Sinn Fein, topped the poll.
“I’ve been conscious for a long time now that juggling a role in the Assembly with Westminster and with commitment as party leader, I’m not able to devote the time in my constituency that I want to devote”, Mr Durkan said today [Monday].
“Do I have regrets?” Mr Durkan asked. “Yes. Would I self-recriminate? Yes. At times have I been too democratic as leader? Yes.
“Have I been vindicated by events? Yes, my judgement calls were vindicated by events. Have I always been rewarded by the electorate? No.”
It was reported today that Mr Durkan has known for some time that he was facing an ambush, and that there were individuals within the SDLP who had been giving behind-closed-doors briefings against Mr Durkan’s leadership.
An SDLP conference in February could have seen a leadership challenge.
Instead, Mr Durkan chose his own surprise moment to signal he would step down, making clear he would contest the Foyle constituency at the upcoming Westminster election.
The decision has sent shock-waves through the SDLP membership.
The development has thrown up the possibility that the SDLP is moving towards an alliance with other parties to gain greater influence that could replace the existing DUP and Sinn Fein power axis at Stormont.
In the meantime the party could see the election of its first woman leader, Margaret Ritchie, who is a contender alongside deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell, north Belfast assembly member Alban Maginness and Alex Attwood from west Belfast.
Last night Dr McDonnell said he was not in a position to comment on the weekend’s developments until he had an opportunity to discuss with Mr Durkan his intentions and talk to other members of the party.
It is thought that the SDLP deputy leader had no prior warning about the announcement by Mr Durkan.
Former SDLP vice-chairman Tom Kelly criticised the timing of Mr Durkan’s announcement.
“The rule of politics is deadly and simple - the minute you say you’re going you are gone,” he said.
“You never post-date your resignation - otherwise you simply play into the hands of your opponents.”