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Hume resigns as SDLP leader

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland

BELFAST – The Social Democratic and Labor Party was shaken this week by the news that both its leader John Hume and deputy leader Seamus Mallon were going to resign. Nobel peace prize-winner, John Hume, is to resign at its annual conference next month after over 30 years work in the vanguard of bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

Seamus Mallon, 65, issued a surprise statement on Tuesday (September 18) saying that his name would not go forward in the leadership contest and that is was now time “for a new leadership team”.

Hume, who is aged 64, has been the political colossus at the helm of his party since 1979 and will be nigh-impossible to replace. He said he took the decision to step down as a result of serious health problems and to cut his workload.

He will remain politically active, however, as one of Northern Ireland’s three members of the European parliament and as the MP for Foyle, the constituency that includes his beloved home city of Derry.

Hume said it had been a difficult decision but he was proud to have been the party leader.

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“I was leader of a great team of people, all of whom have been totally committed to peace and stability on our streets,” he said.

Mark Durkan is regarded as the likeliest replacement for Hume as part of any new leadership team. Durkan is an assembly member for Derry.

Mallon is a former Gaelic football player and headmaster. Like Hume, he rose to prominence politically in the civil rights movement. He represented Armagh in the doomed power-sharing assembly in 1973-74. He was first elected to Westminster in a by-election in January 1986. He doubled his majority of 2,500 a year later during the British general election. Mallon became deputy leader of the devolved government in 1999. He has always been regarded as a more traditional nationalist than Hume, and a fierce critic of the IRA, displaying unease at times with his leader’s rapport with Sinn Fein.

The news of the SDLP’s leadership changes came at another crucial phase in the peace process, with just days to go before the latest deadline for the parties to agree on the issues holding it back.

Mallon paid tribute to Hume saying the party had been “lucky” to have had a leader of such “towering courage and perception”.

The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, said he had “never doubted the sincerity of John’s ceaseless efforts to find an agreed resolution” and that the two leaders had “friendly” relations.

“He deserves credit for his work to redefine Irish nationalism and move it away from simplistic territorial certainties and instead to concentrate on people rather than land and on seeking agreement between the people who actually inhabit the land in question,” he said.

The Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, said Hume had given “decades of public service” to the province, praising the SDLP leader for his courage in sticking to the peace process when others were condemning him for speaking to republicans.

Anti-Agreement unionist assembly member, Norman Boyd, however, said there would be “few tears shed in the unionist community for the resignation of John Hume”. He added: “John Hume has been no friend of the Unionist community and over 30 years has weakened the Unionist position at every opportunity.”

Hume co-founded the SDLP in 1970, and took over as party leader from Gerry (now Lord) Fitt nine years later. An active member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in the late ’60’s, he also founded Derry City Credit Union.

He was a member of the short-lived 1974 power-sharing executive set up after the Sunningdale Conference and was instrumental in devising both the New Ireland Forum and the Anglo Irish Agreement of the mid 1980’s.

After abortive talks with Sinn Fein in 1988, he picked up the baton again in the early 1990’s and began a series of discussions with Gerry Adams that resulted in the 1994 IRA ceasefire.

When Hume’s dialogue started, however, virtually every newspaper in Britain and Ireland had harshly criticized him for so-doing. In a graveyard after the Greysteel massacre, which itself followed the Shankill Road bombing, he broke down publicly when thanked by a relative of one of the dead.

His huge workload, as party leader, MP, MEP and assemblyman finally began to take a toll in recent years. In August 1999, he was rushed to hospital while attending a conference in Austria. He underwent emergency bowel surgery, which meant a long period of recuperation.

Hume topped the poll in the Foyle constituency in the 1998 assembly elections with 12,581 votes. The SDLP leader also comfortably topped the poll in the 1997 general election in the constituency with 25,109 votes.

Sinn Fein took an extra two seats in this year’s general election, overtaking the SDLP as the main nationalist party in Northern Ireland. Whoever takes over at the party’s head faces a stiff challenge from Sinn Fein.

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