Durkan steps down after decade as SDLP leader

Mark Durkan steps down as the leader of the SDLP today after a decade at the helm.

Mark Durkan steps down as the leader of the SDLP today after a decade at the helm.

The former finance minister in the Stormont Executive and MP and MLA for Foyle is quitting to concentrate on his role at Westminster. He delivers his final address at the party conference today in Newcastle, Co Down.

The outcome of a leadership battle between Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie and South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell will be known on Sunday.

Mr Durkan, 49, married to Jackie with five-year-old daughter Dearbhail, is a life-long politician and former student union leader with a commitment to social justice and tackling inequality.

His last day as leader coincided with the announcement of a deal on the devolution of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.

“We want to confound the sinister agenda of so-called dissidents, so-called republicans,” he said. “We want to make sure that devolution works a lot better than it has been doing.”

The youngest of seven children, he was reared by his mother Isobel after his father Brendan, an RUC inspector, was killed in a road accident.

The relatively youthful Mr Durkan draws inspiration from the black civil rights activist Martin Luther King, whose portrait is displayed in his office in Foyle.

He has also worked closely with late US Senator Ted Kennedy having served an internship with the leading Democrat in Washington in 1985.

Known for his easy sense of humour, Mr Durkan quipped that he was the only politician to get in trouble for sleeping with his wife after his expenses for a hotel night in London were queried by the Westminster authorities. He is also a keen Manchester United supporter.

He lives in Derry and helped regenerate the SDLP after the end of Nobel Laureate John Hume’s period as leader.

When Mr Durkan took over the leadership he was the only contender. His appointment followed the devastating 2001 election which saw Sinn Féin overtake the SDLP, winning Westminster seats in West Tyrone and Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

However, in 2005 he held the Foyle MP’s seat against a strong challenge from Sinn Féin and saw South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell returned against the odds in a largely unionist area.

Now he takes a back seat and waits to see who will be his successor amid an executive coming to terms with its new security responsibilities and a whole raft of fresh issues on the horizon.

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