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Standing his ground

Last year, he told the Assembly that fracking would not happen 'on his watch'. This week Environment Minister Mark H Durkan slowed down the shale gas revolution even further. Personal bias or brave decisions that could take him to the top the SDLP?

By Alex Kane

In spite of its doubters and haters, it seems certain that the shale revolution in oil and gas production is here to stay. Like coal and conventional oil drilling before it, it seems to be an unstoppable industrial force and likely, within just a few years, to spread globally after a huge economic success in the United States.

Until, that is, it reached Belcoo in Co Fermanagh; for, last Monday, Mark H Durkan, the Environment Minister, decided to slow down the revolution in one small part of the United Kingdom.

"In arriving at this decision, I believe I must proceed on the basis of a precautionary principle. This principle establishes that a risk exists if it cannot be excluded on the basis of objective information and in the case of doubt as to the absence of significant effects then a full environmental assessment should be carried out.

"I would rather be here explaining my decision to require an environmental impact assessment rather than apologising for it in a year's time. My message to the protesters is that hopefully this gives them time to pause and reflect, and they will hopefully be content that the minister has listened to their concerns."

On the surface, the minister's position seems very balanced. Yet, in October last year, speaking in the Assembly, his position seemed pretty set in the type of stone that any sort of drill would have problems with: "What I said was that it would not happen on my watch easily and I mean that well and truly. Any decision will require full scientific evidence.

"In my opinion, that scientific evidence is not there now and I cannot see it being there in the foreseeable future. Therefore, I cannot see fracking happening on my watch."

Durkan's decision will have endeared him to a well-organised and very vocal anti-fracking lobby across Northern Ireland, but the decision will, almost certainly, end up in the courts, with Tamboran seeking a judicial review based on what they will argue is the minister's 'known antipathy' to fracking, as well as what they regard as his "inaccurate interpretation of planning regulations".

He has also been criticised by chief PWC economist Esmond Birnie who says that "while there are certain environmental concerns I think it is, on balance, a pity to stop exploratory drilling because after all, surely you should try and ascertain how much shale oil and gas is under that part of Northern Ireland".

Like so much of what passes for politics and the government process here, this decision (although 'decision' is probably overegging the pudding) is fairly typical of how ministers operate.

In the continuing absence of a Programme of Government worthy of the name and of anything resembling a collectively agreed policy on anything at Executive level, an awful lot hinges upon the personal views and beliefs of the particular minister. Had it been Sammy Wilson, for instance, then it's probable that Tamboran would be drilling away as you read this.

Mark H Durkan is actually a well-liked political figure, even among those who disagree with him. He's hard not to like, since he tends to mix self-deprecation (he's been known to refer to himself as tall, Durkan, handsome), awful jokes and genuine affability in equal measure.

He's also, by about a year, the youngest member of the Executive: not bad for someone who was elected for the first time in 2005 and only arrived in the Assembly in 2011.

Mark Henry Durkan was born on March 3, 1978 in Londonderry. His father, Patrick (brother of Foyle MP Mark Durkan), is an accountant and his mother Gay (short for Gabrielle) is a former teacher.

His older brother, Brendan, teaches in Manchester, while his younger sisters, Mary and Isobel, are a barrister and solicitor respectively. His sister Deirdre died in a car accident in 2000, when she was 18; another sister, Gabrielle, committed suicide almost three years ago, at 27.

Durkan admits to having "very many happy memories of childhood" in a family that was heavily involved in local community organisations, charities and schools.

He attended nursery school in the Creggan, followed by Rosemount Primary and St Columb's College. He read English at Queen's University, but dropped out after two years: "there were other things I wanted to do with my life. I was told it was a rash decision at the time and it was. But I would like to go back some day and complete my degree."

At that point, he wasn't involved in politics and didn't join the QUB branch of the SDLP, because he wasn't particularly interested in politics. "I would have canvassed for the SDLP, initially out of family loyalty to my uncle Mark, and began to understand and appreciate the ethos, integrity and ethos of the party."

He finally joined when he was around 23 or 24. He was working in a pub at the time and "agreed to join blindly and semi-reluctantly." In 2005, he ran for Derry City Council – comfortably topping the poll.

"The Durkan name has helped me because the Durkans help people. My parents, wife, siblings and, of course, my uncle Mark are well known and respected in Derry. But I now rely on more than just the name."

He plays down the importance of humour to his popularity, but does add that "if humour was that good a defence mechanism, then Liverpool would be trying to sign John Bishop before the transfer window closes. But there can be so much doom and gloom sometimes that it's good to lighten the mood when possible and make people smile."

He was elected to the Assembly in 2011 (topping the poll for the SDLP, although coming in behind Martina Anderson and William Hay, sitting MLAs). He soon made a name for himself as the party's health spokesman (during the outbreak of pseudomonas in early 2012) and as a member of the social development committee.

The SDLP isn't exactly top-heavy with media-friendly, non-pompous, safe-pair-of-hands performers, so there was almost an inevitability about his rapid rise through the ranks. Being liked across the various divides within the Assembly also helped.

So it wasn't a huge surprise when he replaced Alex Attwood as Environment Minister on July 16, 2013. It may have come as something as a shock to his wife, Anne, though, whom he had married three days earlier. They are expecting their first child in a few weeks' time and Durkan also has a 12-year-old son, Luke, from a previous relationship.

He is confident about the future of the SDLP: "We have had setbacks for sure, but the honesty, integrity and democratic nature of the party is what separates it from the others. A strong SDLP is essential to deliver real progress and the changing of us-and-them politics into us-for-them politics."

He refuses to be drawn on the internal dynamics of the Executive – other than accepting the dysfunctional nature of the DUP/SF relationship – but has said before that "while there isn't much backslapping, there isn't all that much scowling, either".

Away from politics, he enjoys running and is also a keen supporter of Everton, Derry City and Derry GAA. He is also a self-confessed film nerd "and would happily pit my wits against any MLA in a movie quiz".

He's also had bad luck with photography: "On separate occasions I have been photographed with Barack Obama and Quentin Tarantino. Neither photograph came out, so I'll have to go down the selfie route from now on."

He dismisses the idea of ever leading the SDLP, but given his profile, youth and general popularity he would be a serious contender when Alasdair McDonnell does stand down. "I have fought valiant but lonely battles for DVA workers, Exploris and the Planning Bill. People should know if I say I will do something, I do it," he says.

Fracking has been his biggest challenge so far and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that his decisions are in line with his personal opinion on the issue. Some will argue that personal bias is no way for a minister to make decisions: while others will say it is a sign of leadership.

Either way, Mark H Durkan is one to watch. He is not afraid to make those decisions.

A life so far...

  •  Born in Derry in 1978, he is the youngest member of the Executive
  • He dropped out of Queen's after two years. He topped the poll at his first election in 2005
  •  He was appointed to the Executive three days after marrying Anne
  •  He and Anne are expecting a child in a few weeks and he has a son from a previous relationship
  •  He is a film nerd, but a photograph of him and Quentin Tarantino didn't develop

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