Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Durkan move major setback for the SDLP

Mark Durkan
Mark Durkan

The SDLP is putting a brave face on the bolt from the blue decision by its former leader Mark Durkan to stand in the European elections in Dublin for Fine Gael. Perhaps the consensus among the party hierarchy is that there is nothing to be gained from any display of animosity towards a man who is well respected within the party and in the wider nationalist community.

Having seen another party star Claire Hanna resign her position as Brexit spokeswoman because of the decision to form an alliance of some kind with Fianna Fail, the last thing the SDLP needs to display is any sign of panic.

Yet leader Colum Eastwood must wonder if there are any other surprises in store as the party takes stock of its future. Unfortunately, given the toxic polarity of politics in the province at the moment, the momentum seems to be drifting ever faster away from the middle ground and the SDLP, like the UUP, has little but memories of former glories to cling to.

It is ironic that the party which sowed the seeds of peace simultaneously sowed the seeds of its own virtual destruction by encouraging Sinn Fein to give up its support for violence and turn to political activity.

Its nadir to date was in the last general election when it lost its three Westminster seats, including its long-term fortress in Foyle.

For Mr Eastwood the problem remains that the SDLP has little or no record of reversing defeats to Sinn Fein.

And the situation has become even bleaker with the absence of devolved government and Brexit, which has left nationalism voiceless in the debate since Sinn Fein does not take its Westminster seats.

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As long as the arithmetic in London continues to give the DUP a pivotal position there the political stasis is likely to continue here.

This has persuaded Mr Durkan that the invitation from Fine Gael to stand in Dublin for a European seat is too good to refuse. He, like his mentor John Hume, has the ability to argue the nationalist case with conviction and logic. But he is not guaranteed to win a seat and that could put his plans to nought.

His decision to head south could be a seminal moment in the history of the party he once led. It adds to the confusion felt by supporters as the local government elections approach. What, they may well ask, are they voting for if they put their mark opposite an SDLP candidate? It is far from clear at the moment.

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