Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Westminster still has a critical role in our future

Mark Durkan stood down after nine years as SDLP leader. Here he explains why his work as a constituency MP is more important than it has ever been

Now that I have stood down as leader of the SDLP, I am looking forward to the opportunity to step up my efforts in a range of other roles.

If given the honour of being elected by the people of Foyle once again as their MP, I will stand down from the Assembly consistent with my view on dual mandates. Given the nature of the challenges that Northern Ireland faces there in the next five years, Westminster is the seat I need to contest.

The new SDLP leadership team under Margaret Ritchie has my full support and loyalty. I am very pleased that Margaret has asked me to play a prominent role for the party not only at Westminster, but here at home as well in espousing the causes and principles that matter to people.

The people of Derry need a strong voice and effective representation using the Westminster seat there and elsewhere. I will continue to be a champion for Derry's best interests.

In my role as MP for the city I have been able to secure compensation for the Desmonds pension scheme members, defend local public jobs at Foyle House and help secure the Telehouse for Derry.

The SDLP has led the charge at Westminster for Northern Ireland credit unions to be allowed to offer the same breadth of services as in England and the Republic. We have recently secured a Government commitment on that.

I have also got a commitment from the Treasury to double the number of Revenue officials processing tax credit and child credit claims for cross-border workers. That is the difference that a working MP can make.

I have spent considerable time over the past 16 months in pursuing the case for the PMS savers who have been so horrendously let down.

It was at my instigation that John McFall MP brought the Treasury Committee to Stormont.

My broader track record is clear. I am particularly proud of having negotiated the Dublin-Derry road project into the Irish Government's national development plan, of delivering funding for the south wing extension at Altnagelvin Hospital, and of having secured the Integrated Development Fund that delivered positive investments such as Skeoge Business Park, the Walled City Tourism Project and the Robotics Centre at Magee.

At a wider policy level, the SDLP has had success in fighting for a strong climate change bill, opposing the 'On the Runs' amnesty for security forces and paramilitaries, getting the British Government to agree to the Cluster Bomb Treaty, opposing ID cards and stopping 42-day detention.

In the coming years, major decisions will be made in Westminster affecting social security benefits, the spending powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the economic prospects of the North. With more public spending cuts coming, people here will need local MPs arguing strongly for our local and regional interests.

I will use the MP's seat to campaign hard on the issues that matter to Derry in Westminster, Dublin and elsewhere. Some particular priorities will include the local economy and jobs, full implementation of the Bain report on decentralisation, pursuing the case for PMS savers and uplifting North-South cooperation.

Focusing on the MP role will enable me to spend more time working on North/South matters through the Oireachtas Good Friday Agreement committee.

Two weeks ago we saw a deal announced at Hillsborough after a fair amount of frustration and speculation. The SDLP welcomes the fact of a deal, but we will proof it against such tests as workability, consistency with the Good Friday Agreement and with Patten and its implications for a number of issues.

However, it must be said Sinn Fein has connived with the DUP to circumvent d'Hondt.

They pretend that they will support an SDLP nominee for the Justice Ministry, when they have handed the DUP the very veto that would frustrate that rightful nomination. Something that we particularly welcome about the deal and the talks at Hillsborough is the DUP/Sinn Fein admission - after long pretence otherwise - that the Executive has not been working as it needs to and that devolution is not performing as we all want it to.

Peter Robinson was born again as First Minister and now he and Martin McGuinness say they want a fresh start for the Executive. In the most positive ways, we will test them on that with ideas to make the Executive's work more inclusive, more effective and more strategic.

We will again bring forward proposals to enable the Assembly to do a better job in terms of controlling the cost of government, improving performance on capital expenditure and ring-fencing frontline services from undue budget cuts.

The SDLP is proud of past achievements, but not fixated by them. Our sights are firmly fixed on all we have to achieve now and for the future.

No party gave more to delivering the agreed Ireland we now see than the SDLP. But Good Friday 1998 did not signal an end of our ambition for Ireland and its people.

Our mission now is to fulfil the promise of a reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous new Ireland.

That is the vision for which the SDLP reaches, the nation to which we aspire; the new Ireland we are determined to build.

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