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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 February 2007, 08:25 GMT
Profile: Mark Durkan
Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Mark Durkan was once described by a party colleague as "a brain with binoculars"

This colourful phrase is in tribute to his sharp mind and reputed ability to find problems on the horizon.

Mark Durkan
Mark Durkan is following charismatic political giant John Hume

It's also the kind of clever remark Mr Durkan himself might have come up with.

He once accused anti-agreement unionists of "antics, pedantics and semantics" and often complains his political opponents in the DUP and Sinn Fein are "starring in their own stand-off."

His critics in turn complain that his pithy one-liners are often buried in tediously long paragraphs.

Since taking over the leadership of the SDLP in 2001, Mark Durkan has had the onerous burden of following a charismatic political giant, the Nobel Laureate, John Hume.

Some say Mr Durkan was brave to succeed Mr Hume - particularly when he inherited a party that was losing its place as the largest nationalist party.

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

Having been groomed by John Hume for years, Mr Durkan no doubt felt the pressures of office but he did not shirk from the challenge.

If Mr Hume was the architect of the Good Friday Agreement, and his deputy Seamus Mallon, the builder, then Mr Durkan was the chief draftsman.

Few can recite key passages of the deal as ably as him. Nor has any other party leader clung as ruthlessly to the letter of the agreement in negotiations.

As a fellow Londonderry man, Mr Durkan became Mr Hume's protege when he dropped out of Queen's University in 1983 to work for the newly-elected MP for Foyle. Mr Durkan was already a student politician while studying politics and philosophy.

Indeed, Mr Durkan has never worked outside politics. He joined the SDLP rather than Sinn Fein as he had long abhorred violence, having witnessed at first hand the worst of the Troubles as a young boy.

The polarisation, and what he calls the "manipulation" wrought by the hunger strikes, drew him towards moderate nationalism.

With his family by his side, Mr Durkan smiled through a difficult election campaign in May 2005

Born in 1960, Mr Durkan was the youngest of seven children. He was raised by his mother, Isobel, after his father Brendan, an RUC inspector, was killed in a road accident in 1961.

The young Durkan was doted on by his mother by all accounts, and she even led a schools' campaign in the Pennysburn estate where they lived when she realised her son and other children were suffering from overcrowding in the local Catholic school.

His mother also took him to hear John Hume speak in the heyday of the civil rights movement.

Like Mr Hume, 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 Senator Ted Kennedy having served an internship with the leading US democrat in Washington in 1985.

From Senator Kennedy, he learned this lesson: "You should never go into any issue on any angle unless you know how you are going to get out of it."

While Mr Hume was not a leader who shared his secrets within the party, he did entrust his young protege with the details of his confidential talks with the Sinn Fein leader, talks which led to the 1994 IRA ceasefire.

By this time Mr Durkan was a Derry City councillor, and was serving as party chairman, a post he held from 1990-1995. During this time he was also a key negotiator in talks, hence his role in the Good Friday Agreement, forged in 1998.

It was Mr Durkan who reputedly came up with the concept of the first and deputy first minister. He was inspired by a joint visit made to the murder scene at Poytnzpass by David Trimble and Seamus Mallon. He viewed the joint office as "binding the wounds."

Mark Durkan
As the engineers of the Agreement our role has been a very real one, a very responsible one
Mark Durkan
SDLP leader

When the power-sharing executive was finally formed in December 1999, Mr Durkan, who had won an assembly seat in Foyle, became finance minister.

He was nominally in charge of more than 8bn and managed to negotiate the budget with ministers from four different parties. "Quality and equality," was what he promised.

He was widely regarded as a tough but fair minister. Mr Durkan lapped up the post, which was rife with the kind of details he can absorb easily and his officials were impressed with his grasp of his portfolio.

With the change in the SDLP leadership in 2001, Mr Durkan reluctantly relinquished finance for the post of deputy first minister.

His relationship with the First Minister, David Trimble, began cordially but by the end of their first year in office together, the relationship was strained.

When faced with the suspension of the 2002 assembly when the IRA was accused of spying at Stormont, Mr Durkan, during a private discussion in Downing Street, refused Tony Blair's suggestion that he might vote Sinn Fein out of the assembly.

Mr Durkan told the prime minister he wanted to see the evidence of foul play before moving.

'Rock bottom'

With the suspension of power-sharing, Mr Durkan focused his efforts on restoration, and trying to re-organise his party. He fell foul of some long-standing members, including Annie Courtney, a fellow Derry person and staunch Hume supporter.

She failed to win a nomination and when the party refused to include her on the ticket, she stood as an independent.

Despite the new leader's efforts, the SDLP seemed ill-equipped to take on the Sinn Fein electoral machine.

This was proven to be correct when the party lost six assembly seats and was pushed into fourth place, from a position of first place in 1998.

Confidence in the new leadership was eroded further when in 2004, the SDLP lost its Euro seat, long held by John Hume, to Sinn Fein. By then party morale was rock bottom but Mr Durkan was no doubt buoyed by good news in his personal life.

He and his wife, Jackie, to whom he had been introduced by Hume, celebrated the birth of a much longed-for child, Dearbhail, who was born in January 2005.

With his family by his side, Mr Durkan smiled through a difficult election campaign in May 2005.

Commentators were writing off the "nice guy" of Northern Ireland politics and the SDLP, expecting a rout by Sinn Fein in the Westminster poll.

But Mr Durkan surprised many when he won a landslide in Foyle, successfully defending John Hume's old seat.

Mark was SDLP chairperson form 1990 to 1995.
Mark was SDLP chairperson form 1990 to 1995.

Before the outcome, Sinn Fein sources had boasted the seat was "in the bag." Mr Durkan refused to give up however and defied his critics.

The Foyle Ulster Unionist candidate Earl Storey, remarked at the time: "Mark Durkan stopped a juggernaut."

Mr Durkan's victory, coupled with a win in South Belfast for his deputy Alasdair McDonnell, eased the pain of losing Newry and Armagh and buoyed the party faithful.

Having emerged from the 2005 election with three MPs, including South Down's Eddie McGrady, Mr Durkan achieved the kind of bridgehead he needed to fight the growth of Sinn Fein.

With a power base in his own right, Mr Durkan now has the time and space he needs to mount his long-term comeback strategy. What he may lack in charisma, he seems to make up for in determination.

Mr Durkan's critics - republicans included - concede the SDLP is becoming revitalised. Time is also on Durkan's side in that he is the youngest of the party leaders.

Mr Durkan has long accepted that he must demonstrate that the SDLP is about more than just the peace process itself.

In an interview with the BBC news website, Mr Durkan said: "As a party we have been taken for granted in the peace process.

Poll challenge

"As the engineers of the agreement our role has been a very real one, a very responsible one. It might not have been as noisy or visible (as other parties) but it has been much more vital and constructive."

Now that Sinn Fein are poised to sign up to policing, subject to party approval, Mr Durkan will have to work harder to distinguish his party. He has so far refused any notion of merging with a political party in the Irish Republic.

Instead, he has focused on issues where he judges Sinn Fein to be vulnerable.

He has been particularly critical of Sinn Fein's negotiating efforts post-agreement on issues such as republicans on-the-run and policing.

The forthcoming assembly election will be a challenge and no-one expects huge gains from the SDLP and no-one is expecting the once-predicted meltdown.

As for Mr Durkan, he often recalls his mother's advice in times of trouble: "Sanity not vanity."





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