By Jack Holland
The new leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, 41-year-old Mark Durkan, has told the Echo that the party has no plans to open an office in Washington, D.C., despite two years of intense speculation that the SDLP would establish such a beachhead to challenge Sinn Fein’s dominance in Irish America.
“For some reason this story has arisen about an SDLP office,” Durkan replied, as he spoke between meetings in New York last weekend of the World Economic Forum, which he was attending as deputy first minister of the power-sharing government in Belfast. “We have to look seriously at how we relate to those interested people in the States who have a concern for and a care for the betterment of Ireland and the continued positive development in the North in particular. That means we have to contact people and get in touch with people in a range of different ways including everything that the electronic media now gives us. I think we would sell ourselves short if the test for us and the answer for us was simply to open an office, then it would be just a matter of real estate and personnel.”
While he said that it “could form part of our portfolio in the future,” for the time being the SDLP intended to concentrate on building on the range of contacts created by his predecessor, John Hume. In the declining years of his leadership, Hume was often accused of not building a wide enough base in the U.S., and depending on high-level political networking in the corridors of power instead, effectively surrendering Irish America to Sinn Fein. His successor, who is also a Derry man, rejects this criticism.
“Hume can’t be faulted in relation to the American dimension,” Durkan said. “He pioneered the American connection to our problem, though he was severely criticized, especially by Unionists, for ‘swanning around.’ But Hume was building a process base.”
Durkan believes that the Hume strategy, extended as it was over more than two decades, paid off with President Clinton’s dramatic intervention into the Irish process in 1993.
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“We also want to network better with those people, not just in Irish America, but with an interest in American public affairs who have become very aware of our peace process and supportive of it,” he said. “We need to do more with them to make sure that there is a greater appreciation of the SDLP’s role not just in bringing the peace process to where it’s got but in moving it forward from here as well.”
Durkan became leader of what was for almost 30 years the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland in November 2001, after both Hume and his deputy, Seamus Mallon, resigned from their long tenure at the helm. He came from a background as an activist in student politics, and has been involved with the SDLP for more than 20 years. He was part of a younger generation of Northern Irish nationalist activists who came after the civil rights generation from which men such as Hume, Ivan Cooper and Austin Currie sprang. They helped form the SDLP in August 1970.
Durkan became SDLP chief four months after the party was overtaken in the polls by its long-time rival in the nationalist community, Sinn Fein. At the British general election in June last year, Sinn Fein won four Westminster seats to the SDLP’s three.
For years, some SDLP members had complained that because of Hume’s involvement in encouraging Sinn Fein and the IRA to renounce violence and enter the political mainstream, the party had had its hands tied when it came to tackling the militant republicans at the polls. Durkan’s leadership acceptance speech seemed to signal a departure from that “softly, softly” approach to the SDLP’s rivals.
“Colleagues, never forget we in the SDLP are the masters of persuasion; it is what we do best,” he declaimed on Nov. 11 at the party’s annual meeting in the Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle, Co. Down. “We in the SDLP have never had a hardware counter when we set out our political stall. Our only force is the force of argument — we have no army. No guns, no bullets, no bombs, no plastic explosives and, we will ensure, no plastic bullets. By politics we stand.”
Later he threw in this for good measure: “The best predictor of future Sinn Fein positions is current SDLP policy.” It seemed as if under the new, younger leadership, that the party would come out of its corner ready to throw some political punches in the battle to retrieve its position. However, when asked about how he intends for the SDLP to make clear to Irish-American opinion its distinctiveness from Sinn Fein, he sounded a less confrontational note.
“It’s about improving our profile,” he replied. “We’ll be doing that on a positive basis. We’re not going to be working America on the basis of rubbishing other people who we’re going to be working with at home to try and make things work, whether it’s Sinn Fein, whether it’s the Ulster Unionists, whether it’s anybody else.”
Asked if the party had plans to meet with Irish-American organizations, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Durkan said: “What we want to do is to better connect with Irish America in all its diversity. That means not just dealing with people in the political sphere, and not just confining ourselves to contacts in Washington, Boston or New York.”
Durkan emphasized, at the same time, that it is valid to contrast the SDLP with Sinn Fein. As in his Nov. 11 speech, he stressed that it was the SDLP that throughout the 1970s and ’80s fought for a power-sharing devolved government in Northern Ireland with the North-South dimension built in, as well as that between London and Dublin, all to be part of an overall settlement. Unlike Sinn Fein, he said, “there’s nothing we’re doing or saying now that we haven’t always been doing and saying.”
The Durkan File
Educated: At St Columb’s College, Derry, and Queen’s University Belfast, where he read politics. Deputy president of the Union of Students of Ireland 1982-84.
Politics: Advisor and assistant to John Hume 1984-98. Member of the Derry City Council 1993-99. SDLP chairman 1990-95. Worked on a number of SDLP campaigns, including that of Seamus Mallon (MP Armagh). He was a key SDLP negotiator during the talks process 1996-98. He has been a member of the Northern Ireland assembly since 1998 and was elected unopposed to lead the party in November 2001.