'Criticism I can take. Things that are dishonest I find a lot harder'
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: MARK DURKANStepping down today as SDLP leader to focus on his family and his work as an MP, the man who took over from John Hume is philosophical about his party’s slide since the 1998 halcyon days, writes DAN KEENAN, Northern News Editor
‘I SAID WHEN I became leader that if I did 10 years that would be enough, if not too long.” Mark Durkan, leader of the SDLP – until today – now reckons eight years and three months is long enough. He turns 50 later this spring, and that has prompted some reflection on life, home, politics, the future of democracy in Ireland and the ways of the world. He wants now to concentrate on being MP for Foyle and getting stuck in to policy and legislation, and to leave the party leadership, which some colleagues say never really suited him, to someone else. He won’t come out and say it, but it’s clear that that aspect of his political career has run its course.
Durkan’s Stormont office overlooks the central balcony on Parliament Buildings and offers a fine view of the defiant Carson statue and the long and dramatic sweep of Prince of Wales Avenue, which leads from the main gates. He points out it also overlooks the royal crest carved on the building’s facade, and jokes about “looking down on the crown”.
A connecting door to the office beside has been closed off. Iris Robinson used to work there, but according to a smiling Durkan, neither saw the need for it.
He has an impish sense of humour and loves a good quip. He is excellent company once he relaxes, can be very funny and does a spot-on impersonation of Jeffrey Donaldson.
He differs from his public persona, displaying tremendous shyness – rather like Peter Robinson. He looks forward to a busy and less complicated future as a legislator in just one parliament, and to having a little more time at home in his native Derry – to which he is fiercely loyal – with his wife Jackie, whom he met while working in John Hume’s constituency office, and their young daughter.
“I’ve found juggling the Assembly role, the Westminster role and the demands of party leadership increasingly difficult in recent times, and particularly competing with the most important job description I have, which is as a parent,” he says.
“I’m actually glad that now I will be able to manage my own time and my own priorities a little bit more. I’ll be less packaged, presented, managed and imposed upon.” It’s as close as he gets to a complaint.
It’s been a tough eight years, both for him and his party, since he succeeded John Hume. The SDLP reached a high-water mark following the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which it was instrumental in fashioning. But it’s been a rougher ride politically and electorally in the interim.
Sinn Féin is now the nationalist party of choice. SDLP influence is weakened, party organisation remains creaky in parts, and the membership is frustrated that the new leading parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, are bogged down in their own difficulties rather than getting on with things.
Durkan reflects on his own input into the Belfast Agreement almost apologetically. “I know that a lot of people think that I’m some sort of Agreement obsessive, that because I’m so personally involved in the Agreement and then its implementation, that all my emotional and intellectual capital is invested in this, but I’m happy to be free from that very long episode of process preoccupation. More importantly I’m actually glad that – particularly as we look forward to things going forward here with devolution of policing and justice – I’m very glad that the SDLP is free from that.”
Durkan began working for Hume in 1984 as his Westminster assistant, thus starting what was a very long apprenticeship indeed. He was elected unopposed as party leader in 2001, and his problems were immediately obvious, not least filling the shoes of a Nobel laureate.
“John Hume was a hard act to follow as party leader, and Seamus Mallon was a hard act to follow as deputy first minister. I had to replace the two of them in both posts within a week, and also had to try and establish a working relationship with David Trimble.
“I mean John Hume was a hard act to follow, and I found that not just as leader of the party – I also found it again as MP for Foyle.”
On the other hand, “in other respects [Hume was] an easy act to follow because of the Westminster job, where he established so much goodwill, particularly among all levels of the staff in Westminster, never mind the members – you just have an awful lot of assistance and rapport going for you.”
There is praise for Hume’s great abilities as a lobbyist, as a persuader and as a man capable of building wide networks of people with influence – “but you know he’s not really a legislator as such”.
Durkan, by contrast, revels in this. He is a policy man, a detail freak, a back-room specialist first. Party leadership comes a little down the list. “I don’t think any party is easy to lead,” he says, “and I think the SDLP is maybe a hard party to lead in the sort of context in which we have spent the last number of years.
“The SDLP is a party that puts a lot by its policy values and its ideas. It’s a party that maybe quite naturally and understandably felt that it had achieved a lot. It saw most of its ideas translated into the Good Friday Agreement, and in a sense the party in many ways found it hard to take in how that big political development could then lead to an apparent change in party fortunes.”
For a man who usually refrains from understatement, this is a tough admission. “Sometimes it does happen that people can be a catalyst for something and then end up being a casualty of it.”
Apart from this, his explanations of the slide in SDLP fortunes are more philosophical than detailed. He firmly denies vacating any ground to Sinn Féin. “I don’t know that it was a matter of surrendering. A lot of our clothes were stolen. I have said a number of times in the past number of years: the best predictor of a future Sinn Féin position is a current SDLP one.
“Nearly everything that Sinn Féin have attacked us for, they have adopted, and so it is pretty hard when people keep saying, ‘Oh, you still have to differentiate yourself’.
“In the SDLP we have developed a lot of empathy with the prodigal son’s brother in the past few years,” he says, adding stoically: “The fact is we can’t be feeling sorry for ourselves about this. The fact is that the North is a better place because we don’t have violence. It can be a much better place because we have devolution – not just the institutions here [at Stormont] but also North-South institutions, British-Irish institutions and the new beginning to policing.
“It could be much better again if we had been allowed to set the pace and make all the choices over the past few years. Unfortunately we haven’t, and I mean our frustration isn’t because of where we are ranked politically; our biggest frustration is that this place isn’t where it should be.”
Conversation frequently ends up back on the Belfast Agreement, and you get a sense that he views the pivotal year of 1998 as a type of Year One. He denies this, but stresses his case for the Agreement and power-sharing, and warns off anyone from the unionists to the commentariat from messing with it.
“There is talk that I am Agreement obsessive, I’m time-warped into 1998 and all of that. The most important thing about the Agreement, and again it was thanks to the SDLP and in particular John Hume’s initiative, was was voted for by the people of Ireland, North and South. That makes it absolutely unique and sacrosanct. As far as I’m concerned the Good Friday Agreement is the high-water mark of Irish national democratic expression, so you don’t tinker at it cheaply.”
Durkan is firmly of the second SDLP generation. As the son of an RUC officer, he had only started high school when internment and Bloody Sunday transformed civil unrest in Derry into something much darker and more dangerous.
Hume drew Durkan and people like him into the party with his new ideas about conflict, settlement and nationalism. The original SDLP was never a slick organisational machine – and it still isn’t. The party doesn’t have the centralism and the top-down discipline that Sinn Féin and the DUP have, nor the same ability to organise at ground level.
Durkan admits party organisation is his neither his first love nor his strongest point.
“My background in the party always tended to be on the policy side and in organisation. It was really only in relation to particular elections, such as Seamus [Mallon’s] by-election in 1986, Eddie McGrady’s election in 1987 – and he took the seat off Enoch Powell. I would have been involved at other levels in campaigns, but not the wall-to-wall, year-round organisation.”
That’s a challenge that will be handed on to his successor – either deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell or the SDLP’s sole executive minister, Margaret Ritchie.
Nothing is said of the leadership race, the result of which will be known tomorrow, or of either candidate. Durkan will have to await the outcome of the party’s first leadership election, and the unveiling of who will be just the party’s fourth leader in 40 years.
One gets the idea from Durkan that there are other, bigger, more important things to worry about. “My biggest issue is the amount of young people switched off to politics,” he says, pointing to a host of reasons why there is such widespread disillusionment. He cites the British decision to go to war in Iraq, the credit crunch, the bankers and the recession, and politicians’ responses to that. There is also the sheer monotony of peace-processing, Stormont-style.
“I can understand that. When you take the past number of years, people are still saying, ‘how can a whole [Westminster] parliament, more than 600 people, be so misled about something that is so clearly untrue.’
“Look at here with devolution performing so poorly, the battle over education, five months without an executive meeting, a very poor and unimaginative response to the recession, no big lead plans for recovery, review of public administration stuck, all the Hillsborough hullaballoo . . . Really the credibility and currency of politics has taken a pounding.”
IT IS ALL SO VERY DIFFERENT from the days when he got hooked on politics and viewed representation as a vocation. “The way in which we judge the relevance of politics is very different now,” he says.
But young people will still be attracted to politics, he believes. “A lot of the emotional pulls will be the same. A lot of the issues that motivate young people in this generation will be very similar to a lot of the issues that motivated people in our generation. Right wrongs, make things fair.”
Fairness is not something that has always marked his relationship with his party. There has been much private grumbling about him over recent years, some of it from more senior colleagues. As year followed year, some became more daring and spoke in a louder voice.
Some complained he was verbose in public and spoke too quickly and in technical language. Others chided his soundbites, leading to the idea that whatever he did he was wrong.
“Criticism I can take. Things that are brazenly dishonest I find a lot harder,” he says. “When you hear things being said that are completely untrue, either internally or externally, you find it a bit more hurtful. Part of you says it would be worse if it were true.
“I have less of an ego than a lot of other people in politics.” This is true. But though he claims he has a thick skin, there is a strong sense that some of these criticisms have penetrated his defences.
His final leader’s address, which will be broadcast live today, is undoubtedly one he will enjoy. It was drafted earlier this week, but he awaits the outcome of the will-they-won’t-they talks between Sinn Féin and the DUP at Hillsborough on policing and justice and the future of devolution, before he concludes it.
It will not be short. He will not deliver it slowly. He will pepper it with the trademark turns of phrase that some groan about. But he will mean every last, passionate word of it.
Derry, June 26th 1960
St Columb’s College, then studied politics at Queen’s University and public policy at the University of Ulster.
Has one daughter, Dearbháil, with his wife, Jackie.
1984: Started working for John Hume as his Westminster assistant. He was a key member of the SDLP team during the negotiations leading to the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
1998: Elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
1999: Appointed minister for finance.
2001: Became deputy first minister and succeeded John Hume as SDLP Leader.
2005: Elected as MP for Foyle.