The leaders: Mark Durkan interview

In the first of our interviews with the party leaders, Owen McQuade meets Mark Durkan leader of the SDLP to discuss his political career and the future outlook for his party.

It seems Mark Durkan has always been drawn to politics and politicians. When he was younger he helped out in the campaigns of a number of politicians, including the SDLP’s Mícheál Canavan, as Canavan’s son was a friend of the aspiring leader. Being a young boy of eight in Derry during the civil rights movement had “inevitably conditioned an awful lot” of Durkan’s thinking surrounding politics. His interest deepened further in secondary school where he was part of a third world action group, something which he recognises would “not be seen as a politically correct term entirely now”.

His first real insight into politics came however while he was studying at Queen’s University Belfast, but he noted that he wasn’t automatically in favour of the SDLP party: “I would have been as good a bar stool critic of the SDLP as anyone else was – they weren’t green enough, they weren’t red enough,” but one event, and the SDLP’s handling of it, eventually shifted his thinking: “I felt the emotions and the issues of the hunger strike as much as anyone else did but I could see how it was dividing and polarising my own mixed group of friends as well as polarising the student population and it was creating issues and tensions within the students’ union. But at that whole time the one party that seemed to me to be trying to deal with the serious situation on the basis of reason rather than rage, and not out to exploit the emotions of the situation but deal with the urgency of it, was the SDLP.”

Apprenticeship

This was when Durkan became proactive within politics. While he was working as Deputy President of the Union of Students in Ireland, based in Dublin, John Hume, offered him a job as his Westminster assistant, which he accepted on Valentine’s day 1984 and remained in until 1998 when he was elected into the Assembly.

“It was a fantastic experience working for John Hume, working in a constituency office dealing with lots of cases, working with other colleagues who were dealing with lots of cases and then turning some of those cases into issues that John could intervene on as an MP,” he said. Durkan will always remember the role John Hume played in his career as not just “a parliamentarian” but as “a good lobbyist and teacher”.

Nevertheless, he is quick to point out that it wasn’t all a positive experience. There were dark days too, most notably around the Hume/Adams talks of the early 1990s. He remembered how “there was [vindictive] opposition in parts of the media. The treatment he [Hume] was subjected to by the Sunday Independent at the time was simply a disgrace. You had column after column and cartoons generating all sorts of awful imagery of John Hume with blood dripping from his hands and talking about him being the equivalent of a bomber flying over the unionist population. It was dreadful vilification and vitriol.”

Despite how bad things seemed at the time, Durkan reflects that he learned a lot from the experience and commended Hume’s actions: “To see how absolutely steadfast John was, was obviously something to behold. He absolutely knew and trusted his own motives going into this. He also understood the emotion and the circumstances surrounding it.”

Changing times

Compared to when he joined the party, the SDLP is now in a very different situation. “A number of years ago the party would have been defined very much by its position in relation to the conflict. It would have been defined very much by the fact that it was the voice of nonviolent nationalism in that sense.”

He recalls how the party felt “very bruised” by the whole experience of the peace process: “I’ve often made the point before that we developed a huge empathy with the prodigal son’s brother because we felt that having always been for power sharing, always being against violence, always being for all the structures and the ideas that are central in the Good Friday Agreement – not just institutionally but the new beginning on policing as well – we felt that having been vindicated we haven’t been rewarded.”

Although he does accept that being politically rewarded is an idealistic view of politics as in the real world “that’s the way processes work, that’s the way politics work – it mightn’t always be fair for the parties involved”.

The party had to regain its confidence and Durkan was clear on what had to be done to achieve this: “We have to move beyond complaining about our position in the process, we have to move beyond commentating on the process and speculating on what’s going to happen next and very much concentrate on how we make sure that devolution, and all the other aspects of the agreement, deliver to the maximum for people. Because as the party who did more than anybody else to put those arrangements in place, we have the right to be as disappointed as so many people in the public are that they are not delivering as much as they could be delivering.”

On the speculation of a possible merger with Fianna Fáil, he comments that the prospect had “receded for the time being” now that people realise the party is not interested in “quick-fix mergers” but he did underline his determination to establish a ‘settled process’: “I said a long time ago, back even in the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in the mid 90s, that a settled process in the North could open up the prospect of political realignment, not just in the North, but on an all-Ireland basis as well.”

In achieving this he said parties need “to be prepared to foster some new political axes and alignments in the current situation”. Durkan continues: “I think there would be a fluidity there on part of the electorate which I think we have to try to encourage and we also need to, in many ways, nurture it in some of the choices that we are offering politically.”

Durkan believes that when it comes to longer term realignment, his party “will have a lot of our homework done. We will, I suppose have our version of a sat nav that can take us through those issues ready” while other parties are just being introduced to it. It worked, he adds, in the 1990s, when the party continued “to do its homework” after the failure of the Brooke-Mayhew talks, enabling them to be ready with the ideas they introduced into the Good Friday Agreement.

What’s next

Speaking about what’s next on the SDLP agenda, Durkan was quick to note that the European election in June is high on its list of priorities: “That’s hugely significant for us. We’ve always fought European elections as European elections. We will fight it as a European election again because we have a distinctive, positive pro-Europe voice.

“As part of a single party right across Europe [the Party of European Socialists] we are in a position not just to say we can help use our influence to try to get funds for our region, but we can be part of offering a coherent European intervention on the big structural economic issues that need to be tackled at an international level.”

Turning to how the party would be “fighting” the election, Durkan compares it to a mid-term election, as it will be fought in the same way as in the Republic and Great Britain.

The party leader was not hesitant in sharing his true feelings on the current state of devolution: “People are too happy with the novelty of devolution and not questioning the quality of decisions taken. And with this situation we have a regime here at the minute which is happy to strut their power and boast at one level, but then they claim powerlessness on the key issues that are affecting the economy and that are starting to affect so many of our public services.”

Instead, he wants the Assembly to play a much greater role in the decision-making process for Northern Ireland: “We want to be using the Assembly much more. The Assembly was always intended to be a means of ensuring that we had accountable devolution. Unfortunately under this regime the Assembly has been bypassed increasingly – we didn’t even have a proper annual budget process this year − but we want to use the Assembly and its committees, not just to be critical of Ministers but actually to be helpful; to do a bit of policy ‘out-riding’ on some issues.”

He adds: “When we have so many MLAs and when we are all paid the money we are and when we all have the allowances we do, there should be something that the Assembly is adding to things.”

Party vision

Durkan’s vision for the party is one where it is “much more connected as a party with the people that it wants to serve,” although he realises this will be made more difficult for the party in its present situation where it is not as close to the levers of power as it has been in the past. However he thinks that the party has to show people that it is “no less close to them, and if anything is actually closer to them now”.

He says the SDLP “have to show families and firms that are out there, that they are doing good things and have good hopes for themselves, but also have some anxieties and stresses in the current situation, that we are close to their concerns and that we are best for their ambitions”.

Naturally the party’s ultimate vision is one of a united Ireland, and Durkan makes no apology for working towards this goal. This vision, however, has led to a certain degree of confusion and conflict with Sinn Féin as “each time we mention it we are accused of trying to out-green the Shinners,” Durkan comments, even though “our vision of a United Ireland literally doesn’t threaten anyone”.

The united Ireland his party wants to achieve is one “which makes sense economically, environmentally, culturally, politically and socially,” and he therefore feels “It’s in our best interests collectively”.

Durkan comments on the current relationship between unionists and nationalists. He says: “It’s good now that we’re in a situation where the contest between unionism and nationalism is actually going to be a contest of mutual assurance rather than a contest of mutual attrition and that’s good but what we have to do is take the opportunity of the democratic institutions we have and have politics much more about how we make sure we have better and constantly improving public services. Much more about how we have an ever stronger, ever more competitive private sector, how we have a more balanced economy in a more balanced region.”

He used the Jim Larkin quote “you’ve got to keep narrowing the gap between what is, and what ought to be,” to illustrate where the SDLP party sees itself at the minute – “taking up the challenges of the present but very much to pursue the opportunities of the future”.

Pointing out the party’s appeal Durkan says: “We have always had maybe a more practical and constructive contribution to politics than any other parties here. And that was maybe apparent to people in the context of the Troubles when maybe we weren’t seen to be keeping the problems going. It wasn’t us who stood in the way of solutions, it was us who was advocating solutions.”

He predicts that his party would also be moving this thinking forward in the current context: “We need to make sure that we show that about the social and the economic challenges as well. We have a very positive agenda as a proud, progressive social democratic party. We’re not being leftist in our rhetoric as Sinn Féin often are. We are very comfortable with creating a strong and growing private sector.

“We know this has to be a competitive region and I just believe that the SDLP can use the fact of a settled process and the fact of agreed democratic institutions which can work here, which can work North/South and which can work British- Irish to make sure that we can have public services and infrastructure that compare with the best in the world.”

Durkan closes by saying that the SDLP will ultimately strive to improve conditions for the people, and in doing so create a society where “we have a young educated population who can compete with the best in the world and strong businesses that can compete with the best of the world.”

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