New SDLP leader must heal division with Sinn Fein

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

There is only one certainty to emerge from several days of media interviews with Mark Durkan about his leadership of the SDLP and that is he does not want to continue to lead the party.

What is far from clear is whether Mark Durkan knew himself, prior to his interview with Mark Devenport, that he intended to tell Devenport of his intentions to stand down as leader of the SDLP or whether his revelation was a spur of the moment decision that he tumbled into as he was being interviewed.

Arising out of this confusion are a number of other pertinent and relevant questions. Was Durkan forcibly removed by internal pressures or did he leave of his own free will? Did he tell party colleagues about the interview and his intentions to announce an end to his leadership?

In the course of the Devenport interview, which was long-winded and meandering, Mark Durkan assumed that it was common knowledge that he did not intend to lead his party beyond his fiftieth birthday which falls next year.

He said that his leadership remarks would be “no big shock”. This observation reflects a considerable degree of naivety on Durkan’s part because ‘shock’ is precisely how the news was received in political, media and public circles.

When Seamus Close, former deputy leader of the Alliance Party, who was a guest on Devenport’s programme, was asked by Devenport to respond to Durkan’s remarks, his reaction was “Wow”.

In the course of the interview confusion was piled on top of confusion when Durkan had to be asked several times to clarify his position as leader and in each response the fog got thicker and thicker.

Mark Carruthers on Monday’s Good Morning Ulster programme did not fare much better when he also tried to clarify Durkan’s intentions. In this interview it seemed as if he had reversed his decision to stand down as leader and instead implied he was standing down from the assembly to attend the Westminster parliament, inferring he would remain as leader. An exasperated Carruthers persisted and eventually got the clarity he sought: Mark Durkan would leave as party leader.

What was also revealing and worrying was Durkan’s suggestion that the Westminster Parliament was more important to the politics of the six counties than the assembly and for that reason he saw his future there rather than the assembly - an admission which is extremely strange for the leader of a nationalist party with its allegiance to a united Ireland and a separatist outlook which normally includes elevating parliamentary forums in Ireland to the detriment of those in Britain.

The confused manner which signals an end to Durkan’s leadership of the SDLP is not at all surprising but, in fact, is consistent with his leadership style since he replaced John Hume.

It was always going to be difficult for Durkan to follow John Hume as leader because he had a lot to live up to. But there was no-one closer to Hume than Durkan and SDLP watchers informed us that the changeover would consolidate Hume’s politics in the party.

But, of course, this did not happen. Under Durkan’s leadership the SDLP quickly abandoned the consensus that Hume had worked so diligently to create with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. This consensus helped deliver the peace process, the republican and loyalist ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and the positive and widespread changes to the politics of this nation.

Durkan’s leadership encouraged division between the SDLP and Sinn Fein. It was a period characterised by bitter attacks on Sinn Fein. Attacks which caused demoralisation and led to a significant decrease in SDLP voters coming out to vote at elections.

Mark Durkan’s term as leader delayed the objective of establishing a national democracy on this island - a democracy which is essential to help us overcome the legacy of conflict.

However, his replacement has an opportunity to reverse this negative tendency and replace division with a unity of purpose between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, thereby ushering in a new and welcome dynamic for change for the post-Durkan era which will be to the benefit to all the people of this island.

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