The freewheeling Bob Dylan sang back in 1963: “Oxford Town, Oxford Town/Ev'rybody's got their heads bowed down.” Mark Durkan might know the feeling.
On Monday, the SDLP man featured yet again in the letters page of the Irish News, denying that he’d called for an end to power-sharing at the British-Irish Association’s Oxford gathering three weeks ago. He should get used to it. He’s going to have to keep on denying the claim for some time to come.
At the weekend, Alex Maskey had quoted Durkan at Oxford rubbishing power-sharing as “ugly scaffolding” to be dismantled at the earliest opportunity. In his letter, Durkan “utterly refute(d)” this account of his speech.
The issue dominates the letters page of An Phoblacht, too. In the current edition, Colm McCann of Belfast demands an answer from Durkan: “Would an Executive ruled by the DUP or a coalition of unionist parties be better for the rights and well-being of the nationalist community than a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Féin as equal partners with the DUP?”
The suggestion that Durkan wants a return to majority rule is the new weapon of choice of his Nationalist opponents and won’t be decommissioned this side of an Assembly election. There may not be much Durkan can do about this. If he retaliates every time he’s bludgeoned, the solidity of his commitment to power-sharing will remain a topic of debate, and there’s no way that can work to the benefit of his party.
Lyndon Johnson once instructed an underling to spread a yarn that a married political opponent was conducting a sordid relationship with a under-age girl. “But that’s not true,” gasped the appalled aide. “I know,” explained Johnston, “but let’s hear the bastard deny it.”
But can Durkan plausibly deny what's being said? To find out, I have done something truly remarkable. I read a Mark Durkan speech. All 2,700 words of it. There are SDLP MLAs who have never performed such a duty for their party.
Here’s the relevant passage:
“A formula for ‘sufficient consensus’ was a necessary confidence measure in the agreed rules for the  Talks. Therefore, it was not exceptional that such cross-community decision-making protections were also built into the institutions which resulted from those negotiations. As with d’Hondt, the referendum and the need to persuade and reassure was a strong consideration.
“I remember, at the time, saying that the system of designation was necessary because of what we were coming from but should not be necessary where we were going. I argued that such measures with their arguably sectarian or sectional undertones should be bio-degradable, dissolving in the future as the environment changed. Most, if not all of us, had such future adjustments in mind when we wrote the review mechanisms into the Agreement.
“As we move towards a fully sealed and settled process we should be preparing to think about how and when to remove some of the ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice.
“If we are serious about a truly shared future then we have to allow for truly shared politics where parties can — and have to — appeal across the traditional divides. The fault-line in our society will still be there but it should not determine the party political cleavage for future generations.”
(To check the full text of the speech, Google “Durkan Speech Oxford.”)
It wasn’t just Sinn Fein who interpreted this to mean that power-sharing was no longer an arrangement to be defended but a mistake to be rectified. That astute commentator Brian Feeney — admittedly writing without benefit of having read the text — concluded that Durkan had denounced “compulsory power sharing between nationalists and unionists.” This “nonsense,” he reckoned, had been adopted by Durkan because, “his nose has been put out of joint by the present Sinn Fein-DUP axis.”
The DUP, Feeney noted, had happily joined Sinn Fein in agreeing that Durkan had abandoned all previous SDLP policy to range himself against mandatory coalition. What’s clear from the passage quoted above, however, is that Durkan wasn’t urging an abandonment of the current arrangements now or any time soon, but arguing that “future generations” could and should see the day when people in the North identified themselves in politics other than solely by reference to the religious divide.
Some, obviously, think this “nonsense,” and that anyone daring to envision a political system no longer structured in accordance with sectarian designation must have some petty, ignoble reason for so doing. That tells us rather more about them than about Durkan.
My own problem with Durkan’s position is that it’s typically anaemic. If he wants not only to envision but to hasten the day when sectarianism cannot continue to corral the politics of the North into separate enclosures for separate communities, he should start by persuading his own party to drop its Nationalist designation and set about mobilising citizens across the divide against disadvantage and injustice.
Of course, he won’t take that road. His party is incapable of such a turn. There’s the contradiction which will facilitate his opponents in continuing to misrepresent his speech.