Belfast Telegraph

Mark H Durkan on the sisters he lost to suicide and a car crash

Mark H Durkan: 'As minister, they gave me preview of an ad on the dangers of people not wearing seatbelts. There was silence when I told them that's how my young sister died...'

By Claire McNeilly

The most personal and probing interviews: Mark H Durkan, Foyle SDLP MLA, on how his family coped with tragedy... and how a near-death experience changed him.

Q. You're 39 and married to communications officer Anne Carlin (31). How did you meet?

A. I think she fell in love with me as soon as she saw me.

We met at a party conference in Armagh. We got married in St Columba's in Drum, Donegal, on July 13, 2013, and honeymooned in Italy.

It was an amazing experience, but I was appointed Environment Minister two days after my wedding and the day before my honeymoon, so when I came back I was in at the deep end.

Q. You have three children - Luke (15) with former partner Michaela (39), two-year-old Lily and Ferdia, who's one (incidentally, Luke and Lily share the same birthday, September 29). Where does your youngest son's unusual name come from?

A. I played the role of Ferdia - a figure in Irish mythology - in a pageant years ago and I have always liked the name.

Q. Tell us about your parents and siblings.

A. Patrick (64) is an accountant and Gay (64) is a retired maths and Irish teacher. Older brother Brendan, a business and economics teacher, will be 41 on - wait for it - September 29 (like two of his children). Sister Mary (37) is a barrister and Isobel (32), a solicitor. I also lost two sisters - Deirdre, who was 18, and Gabrielle, a 28-year-old nurse who took her own life six years ago.

Q. You were 21 when Deirdre died in a road crash near Desertmartin in January 2000. How did your family cope?

A. My dad was driving Mary and Deirdre to Belfast. There was black ice on the road. No other vehicle was involved.

It was an extremely difficult time. To lose someone so young and full of life is perhaps even more difficult.

She was an immensely popular girl and it hit a lot of people very hard. Our very strong faith helped get us all through that.

Q. As Environment Minister you had responsibility for roads. Did what happened to Deirdre influence your thinking?

A. It doesn't qualify me as an expert, it gives me a degree of empathy with others in that situation and the devastation that death on the roads can cause.

During my time as minister I got a sneak preview of a new advertising campaign specifically aimed at young drivers putting themselves in danger by not wearing seatbelts.

Afterwards, I silenced everyone in the room by telling them that that's how my sister died when she was 18 years old. Deirdre had been wearing a seatbelt, but they'd stopped at a shop and she hadn't put it back on. She was in the back seat.

The reasons for wearing seatbelts are so obvious but, sadly, some people still don't.

Q. What did you do to make roads safer?

A. I brought through legislation around a mandatory minimum learning period and restrictions on new young drivers carrying passengers. It comes into effect next year.

Q. In 2006 you sustained life-threatening injuries while using a ladder to climb in a second floor window of your parents' house after you lost your keys. What happened?

A. I fell on my head, sustaining a fractured skull. I was on a life-support machine.

I had broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a broken cheekbone and a broken arm.

I was very lucky. It was a road to Damascus moment. When you come that close to losing your life you learn to appreciate it more.

It wouldn't have happened but for the influence of alcohol.

Mrs Holly, the next-door neighbour, saved my life. She found me around 7am and called the ambulance.

Q. In what way was that experience a turning point? Did you stop drinking?

A. No, but it changed my outlook on life, and I've learned to be more appreciative of my own life and of the people around me.

Q. And what about death, does it frighten you?

A. No, but I fear for those that I would leave behind. I wouldn't want my children to lose their father, my wife to lose her partner or my parents to lose another child.

Q. What about religion? Do you believe in God?

A. Yes, and I have a strong faith which isn't just about going to Mass - it's about how you live your life and how you treat other people.

Q. Suicide is a growing problem in Northern Ireland. How can we better deal with the issue? Was your sister depressed, or were there signs?

A. Looking back on it, there were signs with Gabrielle, but I don't think I'm an expert.

The resources allocated to mental health are nowhere near sufficient. More people are seeking help, but it's a double-edged sword because they're having to wait longer for counselling services and other help. These are people who can't really afford to wait.

We also have to look at how we are breaking so many people in our society. It's no coincidence that the prevalence of suicide is highest in the areas consistently ranked worst in terms of deprivation.

It's about teaching people at a young age self-help mechanisms and how to better protect themselves from mental illness, including the dangers of alcohol and drug misuse.

Q. Do you think alcohol should be illegal for under 21s?

A. It's illegal until you're 18 and it doesn't make any difference. It's a cultural thing here.

There certainly is an argument for minimum price per unit.

Young people must realise the real damage that drink and drugs do because it's vitally important that they make informed choices.

Q. As a former Environment Minister, do you believe in climate change, or do you concur with Sammy Wilson that it's a load of nonsense?

A. I believe that Sammy talks a load of nonsense. I think the case for climate change and man's role in it is irrefutable. That's why I tried to bring forward Northern Ireland-specific climate change legislation and, while we didn't manage it during my tenure, I believe it laid the foundation for a future minister to do so.

Q. Did you recycle before you became a minister and do you now?

A. Yes, but I definitely became more conscientious about it after becoming a minister.

Q. You're the nephew of the former SDLP leader Mark Durkan. Do you have any ambition to follow in his footsteps?

A. Absolutely not. We have a very good, strong and visionary leader (Colum Eastwood), who also now has a deputy who ticks all those boxes as well.

Q. Is Nichola Mallon a good choice for deputy?

A. She was my special adviser while I was minister. I'm well aware of the attributes she'll bring to that role.

Q. Is your uncle Mark a role model to you?

A. Not really, but I'd be daft not to ask him for advice. He has a fantastic political brain and social conscience to boot.

Q. How often do you two get mixed up, despite the 'H'?

A. He used to get abusive tweets meant for me. And one time I left a message for a Paddy Rooney in the Department for Social Development, not knowing there are two Paddy Rooneys working there. The wrong Paddy Rooney got the message and called the wrong Mark Durkan.

Q. The last time we asked you what the 'H' stands for, you dodged the question (saying hard-working, honest, handsome). Are you going to come clean now?

A. Henry, after my grandfather on my mum's side.

Q. You went to Rosemount Primary and then St Columb's College before heading to Queen's in 1996 to study English. Briefly tell us about your career to date.

A. I left university in 1998 without finishing my degree.

I sponged pots in a factory (Ulster Ceramics) for a year, then I worked at a Donegal filling station as a forecourt supervisor and shop assistant for two-and-a-half years.

From 2001 until 2006 I worked as an accounts technician in my dad's company. That whole time I also worked in a pub.

Q. You were elected to Derry City Council in 2005 and you served until May 2011. What made you go into politics?

A. I never had a massive interest in politics, but I always had a huge interest in people.

I helped out the SDLP at election time through family loyalty. I kind of fell into it. Then, in advance of the 2005 election, the party asked me to run for the council.

Q. It must have been beyond your wildest expectations to become Environment Minister?

A. It certainly was at that stage. But my first taste of constituency work gave me a flavour of public representation. I prefer to view myself as a public representative rather than a politician.

Being a minister was a tremendous privilege. Being the sole SDLP minister was a pretty challenging role.

Q. Which politician from the so-called 'other side' do you most admire?

A Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy, whose failure to get re-elected is a loss to the Assembly and to wider politics here.

Q. Do you think being an MLA is easy money these days?

A. No, but there are people working a lot harder and earning less - nurses, hospital workers, paramedics, firefighters, teachers.

I can understand why people are cross that we're still getting a salary, but I'm not sat twiddling my thumbs.

I'm extremely busy as a constituency MLA and I've never been busier in my role as health spokesman for the party.

But the more my wife hears about us not doing anything, the more she's starting to believe it.

Q. Who is your best Protestant friend?

A. I don't ask friends to fill out a form stating their religious background or sexual orientation. I just take people for who they are.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I'm always asked to take part in charity events (I've done Sport Against Suicide and Football Against Homophobia in recent years). I like spending time with my family, running and I love watching my son play Gaelic football.

Q. If you were in trouble, who's the one person you'd you turn to?

A. Always my wife. She's an extremely good judge without ever being judgmental. But if I'm in trouble with her, that's a different story.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice someone has ever given you?

A. Be yourself.

Q. Tell us about the best day of your life so far.

A. Every day I wake up beside my beautiful wife is the best day.

Q. And the worst day?

A. Hopefully I'm not going to have many days worse than the deaths of my sisters.

Q. What's your favourite place in the whole world?

A. Eight years ago my wife and I went on an idyllic holiday to Sri Lanka - we paid!

Q Have you ever been given a nickname?

A. 'Durky'. And 'Target' because I was good at throwing things. I could hit anything.

Q. Have you been trolled on social media?

A. Just the usual poisonous tripe from political opponents.

Q. If the Assembly collapses, what's next for you?

A. Some type of advocacy role serving the public.

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