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Durkan warns of fights ahead

By Noel McAdam

SDLP leader Mark Durkan was today expected to tell his party the "new circumstances" of politics in Ireland open up a range of future possibilities.

In a speech to the party's annual conference, Mr Durkan was due to spell out his strategy to keep the SDLP "at the heart of Irish politics - and moving forward".

A party sub-group has been heading up a root-and-branch examination of future strategy including potential closer links with Fianna Fail.

Mr Durkan last night warned First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy FM Martin McGuinness: "we will oppose you where necessary".

As the three-day gathering in Armagh got under way, Mr Durkan dismissed what he called "superficial comment" that there are no real differences between the parties on the Executive.

And while side-stepping speculation over moves towards a formal opposition at Stormont, the Foyle MP made clear his party would be dealing with " all the issues that we need to" over the weekend.

A behind-closed-doors private session tomorrow is also expected to discuss the possibility of a future merger with Fianna Fail, which is examining formally setting up in Northern Ireland.

Ahead of his keynote address this afternoon, Mr Durkan said: "We have told Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness that if the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister takes action which requires our support, they will have it.

"And if they do things that require our opposition, they will get that too."

The former Deputy First Minister in the last power-sharing administration stoutly defended his party's only representative on the current Executive, Margaret Ritchie, as the row continues over her decision to cut £1.28m funding from the UDA-linked Conflict Transformation Initiative.

With the Social Development Minister implementing her decision this week, he said: "Margaret is a politician who will follow through and do what she says she is going to do.

"Unfortunately if that seems to trouble others, we can only speculate why."

And with the possibility of the Farset organisation initiating legal action against the decision, he added: "Margaret Ritchie made a good call for good reasons on good grounds informed by the totality of the legal advice that she had."

Following Ms Ritchie's overture to Ulster Unionists at their annual get-together last weekend, when she suggested an exploration of ways the two parties could work together, senior UU MLAs Basil McCrea and John McAllister were due to attend the SDLP conference.

Mr Durkan went on: "There is a lot of superficial comment that there is no real difference between the parties, and that everything is the same.

"I think we will be advertising that is not the case," he added.

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