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SDLP's Mark H Durkan: 'I'm not the man from uncle - we're very different men'

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Environment Minister Mark H Durkan

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan tells Adrian Rutherford how he first became involved in politics, how he survived a serious accident and also reveals the truth behind the mysterious middle initial of his moniker.

Q: You come from a famous political family, but how much of an interest did you have in politics in your early years?

A: I would have canvassed around election time but it was more out of family loyalty than anything else, although I did subscribe to the SDLP ethos on most things.

I got more involved at ground level, then I actually joined and started attending meetings.

As I saw what the party did in terms of helping people, I started to appreciate more the role of public representatives.

The party asked me to consider running for the 2005 local government elections. I did pretty well. I got the highest ever vote in Derry City Council history. I served on the council for six years. The Assembly elections were coming up and I thought I may as well have a crack at that. I thought I was doing as much as any MLA anyway - until I actually was elected and began to appreciate how much work they do.

Q: If your surname hadn't been Durkan, would you be Environment Minister or even an MLA?

A: I've referred to my record vote in my first election, and I'd be daft to say the name hasn't aided me or didn't assist me electorally in the early stages.

However, in my six years on Derry City Council I worked extremely hard and built my own profile.

The term my uncle would use is that I'm not the man from uncle. We're very different in many respects.

My family - my mother, father, brother and sisters - are well known and respected across the city and in that respect my name - their name - certainly helped. I've no shame in that. I'm proud of my family.

Q: You're known as Mark H Durkan. What does the H stand for, and does it bother you that you aren't Mark Durkan in your own right?

A: The H depends on who is asking! I'd say hard-working or honest. If it was a radio interview I might get away with handsome.

I've no problem with being Mark H.

I think I am known in my own right. I'm not vying to be the Mark Durkan. My uncle Mark is someone else and something else altogether.

Q: You were seriously injured in an accident eight years ago. Tell me about that.

A: It was the night of the 2006 World Cup final and I had been watching the match in a pub. The match went to extra-time.

When I returned home I misplaced my key and I foolishly decided to climb in through a bedroom window, which was some distance off the ground.

I fell and injured myself and woke up a couple of days later in hospital. I was extremely lucky, as doctors said to me subsequently. The injuries I received at that time, people generally do not recover from, and certainly not as quickly and as fully as I did. It is something I'm always thankful and grateful for.

I can see that point in my life as being where I turned around. I wasn't particularly wayward or anything, but I started appreciating life a lot more.

Q: People look at the Executive and see health, finance, education and employment as the big roles. Do they take the environment seriously enough?

A: In the past I think people have referred to the DoE as the Department of Irrelevance. Now it is more widely seen as the Department of Everything. It is an extremely wide-ranging remit, and is never far from the news.

We have responsibility for planning, which is often controversial and contentious.

Environmental issues are coming more to the fore because of EU directives and a growing realisation that we need to do more to protect our planet.

There is also fracking, road safety and local government. As minister I brought through the Local Government reform Bill.

People are recognising how important a role DoE has, given the importance of planning and a clean, green environment for our economy.

Q: How much do you have to cut your budget by, and how will it impact on DoE?

A: I have to cut my budget by the same percentage as other departments.

The way the cut is being applied, it will have a disproportionate impact on DoE because the baseline, which is used to calculate my cut, is made up of 37% grants which my department just hosts for councils.

We can't cut them, so the 4.4% cut has to come from the other 63% of my budget.

Because so much of our budget consists of staff costs I've had to look at that.

We had to let go of some people on temporary contracts and we had to let go of those on seasonal contracts a bit earlier. They were employed with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Also, I've had to look at grants which the department administers to see how the savings demanded of me by the Executive can be made while having a minimal impact on services we deliver.

While I do have a duty as Minister of the Environment to protect my budget as best I can, I do recognise political priorities. That is why you didn't hear me running to the radio screaming. I don't think it would have the same effect as saying the lights are going to go out or there won't be any police officers.

Q: The Executive faces a lot of criticism. People say it hasn't delivered. Is that justified?

A: People have a right to say that. The Executive could and certainly should be delivering better. I don't think anyone could dispute that. There is certainly a need for more maturity and responsibility to be shown by the Executive in terms of driving this place forward rather than holding it back.

Q: People see too much arguing and not enough action. Is that fair?

A: Although I've only been in the post 15 months, I'm not sure how much I am able to criticise the Executive within the confines of the Ministerial Code. You are not too far off the mark.

People say to me there is too much heat and not enough light, and I think that's a fair enough summation.

Q: Fracking is a big issue. You rejected plans from Tamboran for exploratory drilling in Fermanagh. Why was that?

A: I have a responsibility as Minister of the Environment to protect the environment.

Q: But is there any hard evidence that fracking is dangerous?

A: I believe it is imperative that I adopt a precautionary approach when dealing with any application.

I would rather explain now as to why I did require more information - in this case evidence that this application wouldn't pose a risk to the environment or human health - than be asked in a few years' time as to why I hadn't sought further assurances that it was safe.

Q: Some claim we are missing out on a potential goldmine because of tree-huggers. What do you say to that?

A: There has been criticism, but I remain certain that my decision was the right one.

Q: So far this year 65 people have died on our roads. That is more than died in the whole of 2013. Is the message getting through?

A: Yes, we have had more deaths but we have to remember that five years ago we had 115 people killed on the roads.

Go back further and it is shocking to see how many people were dying. At one stage in the 1970s Northern Ireland was one of the worst countries in Europe for fatalities on the roads. Now statistically it is one of the safest to drive in.

However, of course I am extremely concerned that, having seen a fairly consistent downward trend, we have seen a regression and more fatalities.

My department is running a campaign, the Road to Zero, and we should aspire to a time when we have zero road deaths.

While it may seem well beyond our ability, it shouldn't be beyond our ambition. Extensive research has shown the DoE road safety campaigns have played a vital role in reducing deaths and injuries on our roads.

Q: You know, having lost a sister in a road crash, the devastation it causes.

A: It's heartbreaking, and every collision on the road which leads to a loss of life impacts on a family and a community.

It makes it all the more vital that we refocus efforts on road safety. The responsibility doesn't just lie with me as the minister with responsibility for road safety or the police with responsibility for enforcing traffic law. The responsibility lies with all of us as road-users.

Q: Suicide is another big issue in Northern Ireland. You lost another sister to suicide. How traumatic is it for families?

A: I've spoken about the devastation that is caused by a needless and unnecessary death on the roads. I think the devastation of a death through suicide is even worse, leaving even more questions for families and friends. People ask themselves why, what if, how - was there something they should have seen, heard or said? It makes suicide even more difficult to come to terms with. It is something that really needs to be tackled. There is so much that could be done in terms of improving services and making people aware of existing services - reminding people to look out for each other.

Q: Was there any indication that something was wrong in your sister's case?

A: Absolutely not. She was a nurse, she was actually the youngest sister in Altnagelvin Hospital. She was working really well, extremely professional. Doing great.

It's a cliché but she was the life and soul of the party. She was extremely popular. Outgoing.

It was just one that nobody saw coming. We couldn't have seen it coming.

In this city, in Derry, there has been a problem with suicide and it is vitally important that efforts are made to increase and co-ordinate attempts to tackle it.

It can happen to anyone. I've heard MLAs stand up in the Assembly during debates on suicide and talk about "these people".

These people are you and me. No one is safe from the ravages of suicide.

A lot has to be done to remove the stigma. People have to realise there is nothing wrong with asking for help.

Q: Banbridge District Council recently introduced a monthly bin collection to improve recycling. Is that something you support?

A: That is very much an issue for the councils as to how they feel they can meet their targets in terms of recycling.

We are coming under more pressure and scrutiny from Europe over recycling. I remember when we went to fortnightly collections in Derry. There was uproar. People said it couldn't work and wouldn't work.

I think it's fair to say that it has worked and could work even better.

Banbridge council said the monthly collection is working for them, but I think it would require a lot of education and communication to make sure that a scheme would succeed.

Q: With any environmental improvement initiative you need to bring people along with you rather than just forcing policies on them.

A: I've a new baby at home and the amount of waste we produce has increased dramatically. I haven't convinced my wife to use reusable nappies just yet. I am trying!

You have families with young children, others live on their own. Getting a policy to suit everyone is difficult.

Q: Your department is facing legal action over the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP). What message does it send out when departments in a power-sharing Executive are suing each other?

A: It sends out the wrong message. I can't say too much about it as legal proceedings are under way. However, I would point to the positive reception that my adoption of BMAP got.

Q: Can we afford an expensive legal action?

A: It isn't my department which has taken the legal action. It will be up to those who have to justify that expenditure of public money, particularly at this time of austerity and cuts to services.

Q: We've seen the SDLP vote decline over the last 15 years, what future does the party have?

A: Over the past few years we have definitely seen the need for a strong SDLP.

I've mentioned the perceived lack of delivery from Stormont and the well-publicised spats in the Executive.

It should become more evident to people that to drive the North forward, they need to vote for a party which puts people first, not narrow party agendas.

Q: There has been some speculation about the future of party leader Alasdair McDonnell. Should he stay on?

A: Alasdair is our party leader, he is defending his seat in South Belfast and he will have the full support of myself and the party.

Q: Do you see yourself as a future SDLP leader?

A: No. It's not something I have any ambition towards.

I think it's important that each one of our MLAs has a leadership role to play and takes on board more responsibility.

But leading the party is not something I have any interest in.

Belfast Telegraph