By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — A new-look, younger SDLP leadership emerged from its annual conference this weekend and made clear it would be tackling the Sinn Fein electoral challenge head-on, while retaining the principles set down by its outgoing leaders, John Hume and Seamus Mallon.
The first decision Mark Durkan, 41, made as SDLP leader was to accept an invitation to speak to the Ulster Unionist constituency association in North Down, indicating his commitment to ending unionist fears about SDLP intentions.
The constituency’s MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, wife of ex-RUC chief constable Sir John Hermon, said it would never have been possible to invite John Hume to the meeting, because of his “historical baggage.”
Durkan was elected unopposed at the annual conference, held in Newcastle, Co. Down, after emotional scenes as Mallon and Hume bid farewell to the party they have jointly led for nearly 30 years.
Brid Rodgers, born in Donegal but now assemblywoman for Upper Bann, was elected deputy leader, the party’s first woman holder of the position. She beat off opposition from four rival candidates to take Mallon’s old job.
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Meanwhile, the reconstituted power-sharing executive at Stormont faces two legal actions from the Rev. Ian Paisley’s anti-Agreement DUP. A judge has ruled that the party can press ahead with a legal challenge to a decision not to call assembly elections in Northern Ireland until 2003.
UUP leader David Trimble and Durkan were elected as first and deputy first minister, respectively, at a special meeting of the Stormont Assembly on Tuesday, Nov. 6, four days after being defeated in the first a vote.
British Northern Ireland Secretary of State John Reid, who is to begin a review of some of the assembly’s voting procedures on Nov. 19, said there was no need to have an assembly election before May 2003.
A High Court judge has granted the judicial review but said he had reservations about the viability of the DUP case. Justice Brian Kerr said his ruling did not affect the current validity of Reid’s decision.
The hearing is due to be held in two weeks. “Until that challenge has been heard, there is no reason that the business of the assembly should not continue,” the judge said.
Paisley welcomed the decision as a “victory.” The party’s deputy leader, Peter Robinson, who is bringing the case, is also challenging the validity of the first and deputy first ministers remaining in office and seeking a ruling preventing them carrying out their duties.
“We had the invalid election of a first and deputy first minister who I regard to be imposters at the present time,” he said.
Durkan’s first speech as party leader was hard hitting, criticizing Sinn Fein for its lack of vision. He said the SDLP had led and Sinn Fein had followed, on everything from unionist consent, to an end to violence and, more recently, on decommissioning.
He predicted the next time Sinn Fein followed, it would be joining the new Police Board. “Our only force is the force of argument,” he said. “We have no army, no guns, no bullets, no bombs, no plastic explosives and, we will ensure, no plastic bullets. By politics, we stand.
“We have the vindication of seeing others work to our logic and of hearing them use our language after years of wasteful intransigence and wanton violence. The best predictor of future Sinn Fein positions is current SDLP policy. It has been true about everything else and it will be true of policing.
“Deep, deep in me I believe that it is our job to remove unionist fears. It is our duty to understand those fears and then work steadfastly to remove any reason for those fears.”
Fighting back tears, Durkan said: “I met a woman a few weeks ago whose son was killed during the life of the peace process. She told me about the beauty of his smile. She told me about the duty of his service. She told me about the brutality of his murder.
“This will be a place one day where politics will have nothing to do with different religions but where politics will be about the betterment for themselves and fairness for others that people of all religions actually pray for.”
Earlier, Hume had made his retirement speech, imploring anti-agreement unionists to work with others in a shared future, also telling dissident republicans they are doing a grave disservice to the Irish people.
Encouraging young people to join the new Police Service of Northern Ireland as an honorable career choice, he also said IRA decommissioning was a step forward and had breathed new life into the political institutions at Stormont.
“The IRA initiative to put weapons beyond use to the satisfaction of the de Chastelain commission is very welcome,” he said. “It represents a massive step forward for the Republican movement and has given the political process a new dynamic. No one should underestimate the magnitude of the IRA decision.
“That said, no one should lose sight of the fact that the SDLP has consistently demanded that decommissioning begin. Frequently when we made that demand for decommissioning some in the republican movement criticized us for playing into the hands of unionists.”