Former SDLP leader Mark Durkan said his decision to stand as a Fine Gael MEP candidate in Dublin, was taken in the national interest and that it was not a case of him turning his back on the SDLP.
On the contrary, Mr Durkan said that he remained an ardent supporter of the party he has become synonymous with and will still be voting SDLP in the north, while also seeking to represent the interests of people across Ireland at European level post-Brexit.
Mr. Durkan spoke to the ‘Journal’ following the shock announcement that he is to stand as a Fine Gael candidate in the European Parliamentary election in May - just weeks after the SDLP announced a formal partnership agreement with rival Irish political party, Fianna Fáil.
His decision, he said, was coloured by Brexit, his own background in negotiations, including the Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and his previous experience as Foyle MP, as well as the much altered political landscape.
“Way back before Christmas I was asked had I ever been thinking about the European Elections as an opportunity to give voice to a lot of the concerns and ideas I had,” he said. “The approach didn’t come from the Taioseach but whenever the conversation resumed with me this year, it was indicated the Taoiseach was aware it was taking place.
“The invitation was about a possible opportunity for me to be able to have a platform in the European Elections to reflect the concerns and rights of the people in the North who were going to lose their voice in the European Parliament and then to represent people on this island and the Good Friday Agreement in a very direct and meaningful way, whenever the next stage of negotiations was taking place over the EU-UK relationship and the ratification of any treaty.”
At that time of the initial approach, Mr Durkan said there was still a huge amount of uncertainty and a lot of speculation around issues related to Brexit, but as the direction of travel became clearer, so too did his decision.
He confirmed that he only told his successor, SDLP party leader Colum Eastwood of what he was about to do just hours before his candidature was made public at a Press conference in Dublin on Monday.
“The problem I had was, if I shared being approached with Colum for instance, he naturally would have had to share that with people in Fianna Fáil, whom he was in confidential negotiations with at that stage. The difficulty then was people might have seen this was all going to complicate any future relationship with Fianna Fáil, muddy the waters and I certainly didn’t want to do that. I spoke to Colum on Monday to tell him ahead of the announcement and I knew and accepted that as soon as Colum knew he would have to inform Fianna Fáil. I also happened, just by coincidence, to be talking to Colum yesterday evening. There’s no problem or tension between us in any way.”
The policy partnership announced by Eastwood and Micheal Martin last month he said could actually “be a very good thing” in terms of serious public engagement around Brexit across Ireland. “When Fianna Fáil looked at how to take on the challenge of Brexit they have looked at the SDLP. When Fine Gael looked at how they gave meaning to commitments that people in the North, citizens will hot be left behind they too have looked in the direction of the SDLP. In many ways, I see the moves as complimentary and a reflection of how Brexit has changed things,” he said.
Mr Durkan said he had urged that the SDLP should be cautious not to work on an exclusive basis with just one party, but said it was positive seeing parties coming together and “looking over the horizon” and that he was confident this would evolve to include much more cross party working in Ireland in the interests of people north and south.
He also pointed to the current Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil supply and confidence arrangement in the south as an example of parties working together with common purpose as they faced the plethora of challenges Brexit brings with it. “We are now in the context with Brexit where many things have been challenged and it is right that parties look anew at this challenges and look anew at the structures therein. The Good Friday Agreement can actually be used to answer a lot of the problems Brexit brings.”
Having represented Derry in Westminster for 12 years before losing to Sinn Fein’s Elisha McCallion in 2017, by 160 votes, Mr Durkan said that watching Brexit unfold had also spurred him on to take up the opportunity afforded by Fine Gael, even if that means foregoing any chance of reclaiming his parliamentary seat in Foyle.
“It has been frustrating to watch the Brexit process without things being said or things going unanswered and seriously stupid things being said unchallenged like the backstop is a threat to the GFA. We will see more of the same at the next stage, attempts to dismiss it or engineer it so that next stage becomes more important. I’m someone who was involved in negotiating the GFA, and then was also involved in trying to secure its implementation and the establishment of the north-south bodies, so in circumstances where I am being offered by the Taoiseach a chance to give voice tho that insight and experience, that’s something I have to consider positively.”
Speaking about the impasse at Stormont he added: “In the past number of months I have attended different events marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement and a key feature of the movement was the challenge to gerrymandering and the voting system- there wasn’t an equal franchise, but I am also very conscious we currently have a significant collective disenfranchisement - nobody’s vote for any of the 90 MLAs is actually accounting for anything; none of them are able to work to their mandate.
“In Westminster it is only the votes of the DUP, other than the very honourable voice of Sylvia Hermon and now we are going to have disenfranchisement in terms of MEP. Under the GFA people of Northern Ireland who are Irish citizens are also EU citizens. In these circumstances I had a responsibility to take that opportunity to try to make some difference.”
Mr Durkan admits that it’s a “big ask” for the people of Dublin City and County to elect him , but said he has been up front with them that if he is elected he will remain living in Derry, while also opening a full-time office in Dublin. It’s also a personal challenge, but, he said: “I couldn’t say I’m not going to do it because it’s too big a challenge, nor could I say I’m sitting here waiting to see if the Foyle seat will come back to me, in circumstances where there might not be an election for some time. That was the choice I felt I had to make and that’s the choice I have made. It’s not with any disregard to to the SDLP or any individuals.”
Mr Durkan said he did not believe the approach made to him involved any element of Fine Gael trying to get one over on Fianna Fail. “They are in a confidence and supply agreement at the minute precisely because of Brexit. They don’t want to create any destabilisation and I have said before that is to Fianna Fail’s credit. This is two main parties being able to come to that mature decision and compare that to politics at Westminster.”
He said he would being an MEP would also bring a challenge of a different nature as more euro-sceptic and extremist representatives are expected to be elected to the European Parliament in May. “It is going to be a battle of values in the next Parliament,” he said, adding that the politics of Europe os not something he is unfamiliar with, having previously been SDLP party officer, and working under John Hume as his Westminster assistant and closely with the Nobel Peace Laureate during his time as an MEP.
Mr Durkan confirmed he had spoken privately with Mr Hume’s wife Pat and said that she “knows and understands” the terms in which he has received the offer from Fine Gael. And he stressed that while he may be “putting on a Fine Gael bib,” he is very much SDLP to the core. “I’m not disguising that politically I am tattooed SDLP and there is no point hiding that. I will be supporting as much as I can my SDLP colleagues in the local elections and in any future elections,” he vowed, adding that as an Irish citizen living in Northern Ireland he would continue to vote for, and subscribe to, the SDLP.