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Last Updated: Friday, 29 April, 2005, 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK
Durkan hopes to foil SF advance
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Politicians are famous for kissing babies, but this campaign has been distinguished by them having babies.

I'm not just thinking of the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy. Closer to home we have Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew expecting in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

Mark Durkan
Mark Durkan is used to sleepless nights with his baby daughter
Her party colleague and Derry City Council candidate Elisha McLaughlin had to hand over her new-born son Daithi to a carer before she went out canvassing last week.

And the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, reports that he has to deal with more enquiries about his baby daughter Dearbhail than about any of the election issues.

The "Sleep Deprived Leader of the Party", as Mr Durkan has styled himself, isn't getting any rest during the daytime.

He knows that every vote will count in the tight battle which is this year's Foyle constituency contest.

His leadership of the party and the future shape of nationalism rest on the outcome of this campaign.

Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin is snapping at Mr Durkan's heels and no door can be left unknocked.

The SDLP have to inspire the 10,000 voters who failed to turn out for them in the 2003 assembly elections, in comparison to John Hume's last election back in 2001.

Mitchel McLaughlin (left) and Mark Durkan
Mitchel McLaughlin and Mark Durkan are battling for Foyle
Sinn Fein put on relatively few votes: only 300 or so. But the slippage in SDLP support put Mr McLaughlin in contention.

Mr Hume's return to Westminster used to be more of a coronation than an election.

But now the race is considered so tight that even the bookies can't agree who the favourite is.

Sinn Fein is excited by the prospect of representing all the border seats.

Turnout in Foyle will be important: a high turnout may be a sign that the SDLP has gathered up its stay-away voters.

So will the relatively high number of postal votes. The 2,500 absent votes in Foyle are thought, according to some local estimates to divide roughly into 900 for the SDLP and most of the 1,600 remaining for Sinn Fein.

Mr Hume has appeared for a couple of photo opportunities but he has not been able to be as engaged as the SDLP would no doubt have liked.

Mitchel McLaughlin
Mitchel McLaughlin has been campaigning in Shantallow
Instead it was the former leader's wife, Pat, who accompanied Mr Durkan when I went out canvassing with them on the Strathfoyle estate a few days ago.

The state of the peace process didn't feature on the doorsteps.

Instead people were more keen to ask the politicians about more localised concerns, like the lack of bus shelters in their area.

Mitchel McLaughlin, known as "Mitch" to people in Shantallow, didn't face any questions about the Northern Bank or the murder of Robert McCartney.

Instead, he spent all his time explaining the difference between the first-past-the-post Westminster election and the PR council vote.

They might not be talked about openly, but the questions raised by the recent allegations about continuing IRA activity are undoubtedly in the mix.

Indeed, some local pranksters have defaced Durkan posters with green paint, leaving his eyes pointing out of a balaclava with the slogan "IRA - Stronger For Foyle".

SDLP strategists hope that Mr McLaughlin's failure to label the abduction and murder of Jean McConville as a crime will help remind wavering nationalists what the republican movement stands for.

Mark Durkan
Mark Durkan will be hoping for a high turnout
Their Sinn Fein counterparts hope Gerry Adams' call for the IRA to embrace politics will help their candidate overcome the recent adverse publicity.

Either way, Foyle, like Upper Bann, should be a nail-biter.

Finally, an apology. In last week's column, I repeated a line which had appeared in some London papers that a defeat for David Trimble in Upper Bann would be the first such loss for a party leader since Ramsay Macdonald in 1918.

As the website Slugger O'Toole correctly pointed out, those who could have a bone to pick with me about this incorrect line include Harry West, Bob McCartney and Gerry Adams.

Indeed, as a former BBC Spotlight reporter who covered in detail Joe Hendron's capture of West Belfast in 1992, this was a particularly egregious mistake.

Those who want to watch me put more unforced backhand returns into the net can watch BBC Northern Ireland's election results coverage on the afternoon of Friday 6 May, when I shall be joined by my far more reliable doubles partner, Professor Sydney Elliot of Queen's University, Belfast.

The programme will be on BBC One Northern Ireland and will be streamed on BBC Northern Ireland's election website.





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