Durkan hoping to hold off any Sinn Féin surge

 

CONSTITUENCY PROFILE: FOYLE:Sinn Féin is targeting Mark Durkan, seeing his resignation as party leader as a weakness

A MAN and woman, whose accents clearly identify them as out-of-towners, sprint across Derry’s Shipquay Street when they spot the sitting SDLP MP for Foyle. The woman, clearly delighted, throws her arms around Mark Durkan’s neck and strikes a pose, while the man takes a photograph. Turns out they’re from Portadown.

Durkan looks bemused. No one else in Derry gives the impression of meeting him for the first time. The city’s matrons are especially receptive, greeting him like a neighbour’s child. Although clearly shy, he does his best to engage children, telling them about his own little red-headed daughter Dearbháil.

He banters with traffic wardens, “I hope youse aren’t doing well today”, and a laugh goes up when a punter bursts out of a head shop yelling “Mark Durkan for President!” It’s a tension-free Saturday afternoon walkabout on his home turf, what used to be John Hume country.

To his team’s dismay, Durkan allows himself to be detained by a few gentlemen down on their luck in Waterloo Place. Catching up with his canvassers, he sheepishly says: “I’m a straggler on my own walkabout.” Afterwards, he’s able to relate the sad personal stories that contributed to the men losing their battle with alcohol.

One woman tells Durkan she’s “panicking” about the Sinn Féin candidate, MLA Martina Anderson, taking the seat. “I’ll light a candle for you,” she assures the incumbent.

While the SDLP have defied the general rise of Sinn Féin in the North by winning every Westminster election here since the constituency was created, and Durkan secured a majority of almost 6,000 in the 2005 election, Sinn Féin claims to have high hopes. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was in town last week shoring up support for the Sinn Féin candidate and meeting local traders. He got a “brilliant, excellent” reception, Anderson says, “as did I”.

In her beaming election poster photograph, Anderson frankly does not look like a woman who spent more than 13 years in prison (“10 of which were spent in English jails”, the party’s website specifies). She says she is pursuing every vote, and believes she can take on the incumbent and win. “I’m confident because of the work that we have done.”

Of Durkan, she says: “He’s resigned as leader of the party and I think he sees himself as on the way out.”

In 2005 the Sinn Féin vote was up 6.6 per cent, while the SDLP vote was down 3.9 per cent. Mitchel McLaughlin, now a Sinn Féin MLA for South Antrim, polled 15,162 votes, or 33.2 per cent, while Durkan’s share was 21,119 votes, or 46.3 per cent.

Derry’s youthful population, for whom the Troubles are a distant if not non-existent memory, means young voters could play a role in influencing the outcome of the May 6th poll – so long as apathy does not intervene.

Tireless campaigner Eamonn McCann is standing for the People Before Profit Alliance. In the last Westminster election he pulled in almost 1,650 votes, or 3.6 per cent, as a Socialist Environmental Alliance candidate.

In this overwhelmingly Catholic/nationalist constituency, both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionists are fielding candidates, while the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) is not. Some Unionists note Durkan has been vocal on the failed Presbyterian Mutual Society issue, and suggest this may be an attempt to encourage tactical voting.

The DUP is running Derry’s deputy mayor Maurice Devenney, from the Newbuildings area, who is from a farming background and is well known in the North’s piping fraternity.

William Hay, now the speaker of the Northern Assembly, secured 6,557 votes, or 14.4 per cent, for the DUP in 2005.

The Ulster Unionists, under the joint banner of Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force, are putting forward David Harding, a vet practising in the Coleraine area. The UUP candidate in 2005 polled 1,091 votes, or 2.4 per cent. The Alliance Party says Keith McGrellis will be its candidate.

As a result of boundary redrawing, the constituency has lost Claudy and Banagher to East Derry. The SDLP holds three of the constituency’s six Assembly seats, while Sinn Féin has two and the DUP’s William Hay one.

Issues coming up on the doorsteps include concerns about education, unemployment and the health service, all candidates say.

Durkan’s supporters say his work to secure pension entitlements for former workers at Desmonds, which was a big employer in the area, is often acknowledged.

Interestingly, the photograph chosen to illustrate the front page of Durkan’s glossy election magazine is one of him with Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

FOYLE OUTGOING MP: MARK DURKAN

CANDIDATES NOMINATED TO DATE:

Mark DurkanSDLP

Martina AndersonSF

Maurice DevenneyDUP

David HardingUlster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force

Eamonn McCannPeople Before Profit Alliance

Keith McGrellisAlliance

L AST ELECTION 2005 Votes % +/_

Mark Durkan(SDLP) 21,119 46.3% -3.9%

Mitchel McLaughlin(SF) 15,162 33.2% +6.6%

William Hay(DUP) 6,557 14.4% -0.8%

Eamonn McCann(SEA) 1,649 3.6%

Earl Storey(UUP) 1,091 2.4% -4.5%

Ben Reel (Vote Dream) 31 0.1%