Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Disaster for SDLP's Eastwood and unexpected gift for Sinn Fein

SDLP’s John Hume and Mark Durkan take a break in Derry in 2005
SDLP’s John Hume and Mark Durkan take a break in Derry in 2005
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Both sides may be terribly polite to each other, but Mark Durkan's decision to run for Fine Gael has inflicted massive damage on the SDLP leadership.

That it is unintentional is irrelevant. Four weeks ago the SDLP voted for a new partnership with Fianna Fail. For one of its best known figures to then declare he's standing for its bitter enemy is disastrous for Colum Eastwood.

It sends out a thoroughly confusing message to the electorate, which the SDLP will face in less than two months' time. Sinn Fein will be laughing all the way to the polling stations.

So much for the SDLP's hopes of a new dynamic branding. It just looks ridiculous. Mr Eastwood tried to spin it as best he could on Radio Ulster's Evening Extra yesterday but he will have convinced nobody.

It was "a bit awkward" that Mr Durkan was standing for Fine Gael but he wished him well and there was no chance he would be expelled.

The former Foyle MP's popularity in the party, and the fact that he was mentored by John Hume, makes disciplinary proceedings against him impossible. Even if Mr Eastwood wished to go down that route, he doesn't have the clout internally to carry it off.

Mr Durkan could have spared the SDLP leader embarrassment had he made a clean break and resigned from the party rather than just suspended his membership. Fianna Fail will respond to this challenge ruthlessly. We now face the situation that the SDLP's partners will be trawling through every statement or speech Mr Durkan has ever made looking for material that conflicts with Fine Gael policy - and they will find plenty.

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Former SDLP vice-chairman Tom Kelly put it succinctly: "There was no bigger admirer of the Party of European Socialists than Mark Durkan. For a left-wing politician to move to the most centre-right party in Ireland, to become part of a European group which includes the Prime Minister of Hungary, is an extreme shift. I don't get it."

Mr Durkan is just a man in search of a political role. Despite his protestations, he implicitly doesn't identify with Fianna Fail or he would have pursued an opening on that front. The Irish Labour Party is his natural political home but, for the foreseeable future, it's a busted flush, so he has been amenable to another suitor.

His election is by no means guaranteed. Fine Gael has surely promised him some other position, in the Senate or internationally, if he fails.

In the meantime, he will have to use all his political skills to square his opposition to Tory austerity - which led to a ringing endorsement from the SNP's Mhairi Black ahead of the 2017 general election - with Fine Gael's record on social welfare and homelessness.

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