As Mark Durkan steps down after nine years as the leader of the SDLP, Noel McAdam looks at his legacy
As late as last week Mark Durkan was facing calls to reconsider his decision to quit as SDLP chief. An impassioned MLA made the appeal during a party meeting at the Hillsborough talks — but the leader is not for turning.
Gauged by the potential and promise he appeared to represent initially, Durkan has been a disappointment.
The seeming, inexorable electoral decline of the party — though last summer’s European poll showed the rot may have finally stopped — was inextricably linked to the British and Irish governments’ emphasis on bringing Sinn Fein in from the cold. Even as it stole the SDLP’s clothes, there were no rewards from the electorate.
In addition the SDLP was never an easy party to lead. Many of its core members are still adjusting to the rise, and rise, of republicans and the post-Good Friday Agreement political landscape. Party organisation is patchy to say the least.
Durkan, who seems to have less ego than many politicians, remains personally frustrated and yet has reasons to be cheerful. The former Deputy First Minister was also Finance Minister, and played a major role in securing the Good Friday Agreement and, against the odds, bedding down devolution.
In terms of the process which has delivered relative political stability, no single individual has made a more durable contribution — nor will be more greatly missed. And subject to a deal on policing and justice, process politics is coming to an end in any event.
Though somewhat sidelined in the tortuous negotiations over the last fortnight, no one is more adept at the ‘hot house’ style of politiking than Durkan.
He was in the room last week when Secretary of State Shaun Woodward held up the front page of that day’s Belfast Telegraph, ‘A Shameful and Disgraceful Day’ and said: “These are the kind of headlines we need to avoid.”
Durkan, who had been missing for the first day of the talks due to focusing on the complicated credit union controversy in the Commons, seemed to judge the ebb and flow of the discussions better than most and, as usual, had the best bon mot — calling for “outcomes, not outbursts”.
He is the Woody Allen of Ulster politics — at the height of the expenses scandal over a hotel bill he quipped he was the first politician to get in trouble for sleeping with his wife; when Finance Minister he told ministers: “You laugh at my jokes — and I laugh at your bids.”
The one-liners belie this most serious of men.
Durkan’s other, early ‘nice guy’ image was quickly broadened. He showed steel over the ‘on the runs’ controversy, first spotted the Executive’s three-year budget would run into trouble and predicted parading would come back centre-stage.
The circumstances of his sudden resignation, announced on a Sunday lunchtime BBC interview, and unexpected by many, are still subject to speculation.
Durkan consistently managed to carve out the moral high ground, only to further give ground to Sinn Fein. And even apparent gaffes — his speech suggesting a voluntary coalition could eventually replace the mandatory structure at Stormont — are the product of honesty rather than guile.
His return to Stormont at some point in the future cannot be entirely ruled out.