Former SDLP chief hopes to give NI a voice in Europe after Brexit

A former Northern Ireland statesman has said he hopes to give the region a voice in Europe after Brexit by running for election in the Irish Republic.

Mark Durkan, a former deputy first minister, was confirmed on Monday as a Fine Gael election candidate for the European elections in May.

The former SDLP leader will run as a candidate alongside former tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald in the constituency of Dublin for the party which forms the major part of Ireland’s minority government.

European elections
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the launch of Mark Durkan and Frances Fitzgerald as Fine Gael’s European Election candidates in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

Confirming the move at a press conference in Dublin, Ireland’s premier Leo Varadkar said his decision to invite Mr Durkan to run as a candidate was for the political future of the island.

“At this point in time, as Brexit continues to present enormous challenges, we need a place to hear people like Mark Durkan and that place is in the European Parliament,” he said.

“Instead of a border poll, I’m asking the people of Dublin to cast a more important vote.

“I don’t want the people of Northern Ireland to have no voice or representation in Europe, I don’t want them ever left behind again.”

University of Ulster Peace chair
Former SDLP leaders John Hume (left) with Mark Durkan (PA Archive)

Mr Durkan led the SDLP from 2001 to 2010, taking on the mantle from Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume.

The 58-year-old briefly served as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister alongside the Ulster Unionist Party’s first minister David Trimble.

Now he said he wants to be part of a “strong team Ireland that stands for decency”.

“Given my own deep involvement in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, I would really welcome the opportunity to contribute in that context in the European Parliament,” he said.

Taoiseach @campaignforleo and Tánaiste @simoncoveney announcing the intention of @markdurkan and @FitzgeraldFrncs to seek the Fine Gael nomination to run in the European elections.

— Fine Gael (@FineGael) March 4, 2019

“The Taoiseach is following through on his statement last year that Northern Ireland citizens will not be left behind.

“This is a big ask for the people of Dublin, but as we see a huge disenfranchisement in Northern Ireland, the promises of rights that were framed in the Good Friday Agreement stand in deficit at the minute.

“In the broadest sense, I hope the people of Dublin look at this as an election of the greatest national importance.

“I hope this is a green jersey day with a strong turnout to send a message to Brexiteers that the Irish people as a whole value the EU in a fundamental way.”

SDLP and Fianna Fail partnership
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (left) and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, whose parties voted for a link-up (SDLP/PA)

Mr Durkan’s defeat by Sinn Fein’s Elisha McCallion at the 2017 general election was considered to be one of the surprises of that poll, which saw all three SDLP MPs lose their seats.

His candidacy for Fine Gael comes just weeks after the SDLP announced a link-up with Irish Opposition party Fianna Fail, in an effort to boost its flagging fortunes.

An SDLP spokeswoman paid tribute to Mr Durkan.

“Mark Durkan provided the people of Derry with a first class public service for decades,” she said.

“He is a first class parliamentarian and his regrettable absence on the benches of Westminster has not gone unnoticed by parties and communities alike.

“We wish him well in the upcoming European election. Ireland can only benefit from having Mark Durkan back on a parliament bench.”

Mr Durkan told RTE he will suspend his SDLP membership in order to run as a Fine Gael candidate.

At the press conference in Dublin, he stated: “Obviously, going forward, I will be putting on a Fine Gael vest, but I will not hide my SDLP jersey underneath”.