Sunday’s news that SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, would stand aside if he was re-elected as the MP for Foyle came as a surprise to almost everyone. It was assumed by many that his time as leader would be soon coming to an end, but the timing and the nature of his announcement to Mark Devenport caught even his party colleagues off-guard. There has been much speculation on the blogs that Durkan’s citing of the need to end dual mandates as a factor in stepping down was an attempt to kick sand in the eyes of Alasdair McDonnell.
Interestingly, McDonnell, the incumbent MP and an MLA for South Belfast, sought to distance himself from this at the press conference in Stormont on Monday. Whether or not this speculation is close to the truth or not is arguably less relevant than the fact that it seems so plausible. It also raises the issue of a leadership election and the working out of many of the tensions that have been bubbling beneath (and indeed, above) the surface, as rival views manifest themselves in support for rival candidates. It also could re-open questions surrounding mergers with Southern parties and the true political identity of the party.
To many it is a disappointment that Mark Durkan is standing down. While many have derided his leadership of the party, he has managed to contain the almost inevitable rise of Sinn Féin in areas like Foyle and South Down, and has been part of moves towards carving out a distinctive political platform, something that has not been clearly articulated to the electorate in recent years. Durkan’s political philosophy of a social democratic and inclusive politics has also not been expressed enough beyond the verbiage of nationalist discourse that electoral competition with Sinn Féin has tended to induce in party spokespersons.
But it is best encapsulated in documents like A United Ireland and the Agreement which speak of a ‘confident, pluralist and non-sectarian’ state, although the lazy use of the term ‘nationalist’ undermines the essence of the overall argument, and in the Oxford Speech on the future of the Assembly institutions. And it is best demonstrated, to my mind, in the House of Commons where Mark’s contribution to the 42 Days’ Detention debate was widely praised, where the SDLP voted against the war in Iraq and supported a full public inquiry, tabled an Early Day Motion against cluster munitions, and voted against ID cards, tuition fees and replacing Trident.
I have no doubt, from personal conversations and discussions with the party leader, that Mark Durkan is a progressive politician, motivated by issues of social justice and civil liberties, and one who wishes to see a non-sectarian political dynamic evolve in Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole. He has been receptive to leftwing voices in the party’s youth organisation and has recently overseen moves to overhaul party organisation. For these reasons I am disappointed that he will be standing down and hope that his successor is as friendly to a non-sectarian and progressive agenda as he is.
Another worry is that some of the front-runners for the leadership have had a relationship with Fianna Fail in the past that is too comfortable for those in the party committed to membership of Socialist International and co-operation with the Irish Labour Party. Unlike our sister party, Fianna Fail have actively held meetings in SDLP-held constituencies, competed for members at university events and established tentative branch structures in areas in Derry and along the border. Labour, on the other hand, in the 21st Century Commission have judged the political identity of the SDLP consistent enough with that of their own that the SDLP should be seen as the sole and uncontested representative of the Party of European Socialists in Northern Ireland.
The challenge, therefore, for the next party leader is to demonstrate to party members, the Irish Labour Party and the Party of European Socialists that the party is committed to a progressive, social democratic and non-sectarian agenda that negates the need for the Irish Labour Party to organise in Northern Ireland. In the upcoming elections to Westminster and local government the Social Democratic and Labour Party needs to present a clear vision that transcends the deadlock and sectarian rhetoric of the two largest Stormont parties, and which offers a better future for the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland. Otherwise, people will be entitled to ask what the SDLP stands for and whether or not Sinn Féin and Fianna Fail stand for it much more vigorously. These will be the grounds on which the next SDLP leader will be judged, and hopefully, not found wanting.
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