Battle heats up to replace Conall McDevitt as SDLP Assembly member

Resignation is “like losing Lionel Messi,” says senior party stalwart

 Alasdair McDonnell, SDLP. The battle is on to succeed him as MLA if he is re-elected to Westminster in the next election.

Alasdair McDonnell, SDLP. The battle is on to succeed him as MLA if he is re-elected to Westminster in the next election.

 


The SDLP contest to replace Conall McDevitt, who resigned from the Northern Assembly this week for failing to declare payments he received from his former employer, has begun already with two candidates emerging as the leading contenders.

SDLP Belfast councillor Claire Hanna, daughter of former party minister Carmel Hanna, and former UTV news anchorman Fearghal McKinney, are viewed as most likely to be co-opted to replace Mr McDevitt as MLA for the South Belfast constituency.

Some 400 SDLP members in branches in the constituency will decide who will get the seat.

Ms Hanna has stolen something of a march on Mr McKinney and other potential candidates for the seat as she sent out a letter this week to constituency members asking to be considered for the seat. The letter was sent before Mr McDevitt resigned.

Her pitch was based on the fact that come the next British general election the SDLP leader, Dr Alasdair McDonnell, if re-elected as MP, is expected to stand down as Assembly member for the area under new double jobbing rules.

While Ms Hanna issued her letter based on the expectation that Dr McDonnell would be standing down in 2015 it means she is ahead of the game in terms of canvassing.

Mr McKinney is also seen as a strong contender as he has a high profile from his UTV days and is close to the SDLP leader.

Still reeling
Meanwhile, the SDLP is still reeling from the loss of 41-year-old Mr McDevitt, who was viewed as likely to succeed Dr McDonnell as leader.

“It’s like losing Lionel Messi, ” said one senior SDLP source yesterday.

A number of senior party figures such as former leader and Foyle MP Mark Durkan and Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly described Mr McDevitt as a huge talent and a significant loss to the party.

‘Mouth from the South’
Even some unionist opponents who dubbed him the “Mouth from the South” because of his Dublin origins paid tribute.

The DUP Minister for Health Edwin Poots said, “I enjoyed scrapping with Conall, he was an able opponent”.

Jim Allister, leader of the staunch Traditional Unionist Voice party said: “Though opposed to Conall McDevitt’s politics, he had talent and ability well above the average MLA. Not an easy decision for him.”

Mr McDevitt resigned for failing to declare payments of £6,750 (€7,990) from his former employer Weber Shandwick.

He was also under pressure in the past five weeks over disclosures about payments to JM Consulting run by his wife Joanne Murphy, a Queen’s University academic with a particular expertise in policing.

In early August it was reported by the BBC that JM Consulting was paid more than £14,000 for research and secretarial work.

Mr McDevitt said his wife did not gain financially from the payments as the money was paid to other researchers to carry out the work.

It was further confirmed this week that Ms Murphy earned £30,000 in the past two years carrying out research work for him as part of his membership of the North’s Policing Board.