Mark Durkan: ‘I regret that only Derry voice in Commons is Gregory Campbell’

Former SDLP leader defends position of Colum Eastwood, who took over from him

John Hume’s name has been rarely off the tongues of members of the SDLP in Derry over recent months, as they battled, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to defend the Foyle House of Commons seat that had been held by Hume for more than 30 years.

Mark Durkan inherited the seat when Hume finally stood down in 2005. So conscious was Durkan of the legacy left by his friend and mentor that he offered his apologies to Hume and his wife Pat for its loss when he conceded defeat in the early hours last Friday.

“We’ve all come to take so much of what John stood for for granted, and I didn’t want the result to be part of rolling up the record of John and Pat and all they gave us and putting it in the bin,” says Durkan now, as he slowly comes to terms with the reality of defeat in the days since.

"I think it was Robert Fisk who said that all the key things that have ended up as essential to the success of the peace process in Ireland started off as ideas inside John's head, and I was very conscious of them at a time when I knew there were going to be a lot of people crowing that the result would mean the SDLP was finished," he says.


Biggest surprise

Of all the casualties left on Northern Ireland’s metaphorical battlefield after last week’s general election, the defeat of Durkan by Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion was the least-expected result. Even Sinn Féin did not expect it, no matter what they say now.

However, there is no disguising that it was a catastrophic election for the SDLP, a party that was once the voice of Northern nationalism but now finds itself without any of the three MPs it had in the last House of Commons, after Durkan, Alasdair McDonnell and Margaret Ritchie were beaten in Foyle, South Belfast and South Down respectively.

Having enjoyed a 6,000-vote majority in 2015, Durkan was pipped by McCallion by 169 votes: "It's the old Frank Cluskey line. We didn't win because we didn't get enough votes. We did tell people we were in a tight fight, and a lot of people told us they thought I was okay, so maybe they felt they were free not to vote for us. People know now, but that's too late."

“I regret now that there’s a situation where the only Derry voice that’ll be heard in the House of Commons is Gregory Campbell’s,” says Durkan. “It means there isn’t an alternative perspective to counter or challenge to what he or the rest of the DUP will be espousing.”

The Democratic Unionist Party will now be "feeling quite gung-ho and they'll be very smug on the benches now, content that they have a degree of leverage. They will use it to press advantage on matters of particular concern to them. It will leave a totally imbalanced position in terms of the discussions on Brexit, for instance," Durkan fears.

Implications of Brexit

Durkan believes that the implications of Brexit have not been sufficiently recognised in Northern Ireland. "Now we have a Westminster result that could end up having a serious impact on people's attitudes to the devolved institutions. But any deal between the government and the DUP would be an unbalancing factor.

“That would be a test. I am concerned that we could have more drift in terms of the workings of the Good Friday Agreement, because the longer we go without institutions the more people will start to question their value,” says Durkan, who led the party after Hume stepped down.

Defending the position of Colum Eastwood, the man who took over from him as leader, Durkan insists that the SDLP's days in Westminster have been interrupted, not finished, by the Sinn Féin tide. Another SDLP MP in Foyle "is possible and doable", although he does not say that it will be him.

“Our seats were heavily targeted by Sinn Féin, and in an election that was called on the back of an Assembly vote that gave Sinn Féin momentum and margin in both South Down and Foyle, it was going to be a huge challenge, and I don’t see how a different leader could have handled that any better.

“I literally have no plans at the minute. Obviously when I went forward for this mandate I was looking to serve for the next few years, so I’m not going to say I’ve ruled it out, but equally that’s not me making some sort of statement of defiance or saying ‘I’ll be back’. I need to take a bit of time to think about my own position.”

For decades, Derry was an SDLP stronghold, with Foyle regarded as the party’s safest seat; Durkan denies that Derry has become a Sinn Féin city: “Some people wouldn’t be uncomfortable with that label. Others would be very uncomfortable with that label. Depending on when the next election comes, they might want to think about that when voting.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times