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Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 12:01 GMT
John Hume: SDLP leader

By BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent Martina Purdy

Just months ago, party colleagues were whispering that John Hume would not be standing again for Westminister.

And when Mr Hume announced last August that he was withdrawing from the Northern Ireland Assembly to cut back on his workload, it appeared as if the speculation might be true.

He has dominated nationalist politics and the SDLP for more than 20 years and is in many ways synonymous with the party

It is no secret the burdens of the peace process have taken their toll on the SDLP leader's health.

But Mr Hume appears determined to hold on to his Westminister seat, along with his leadership and his job as MEP.

There are several factors at play. Mr Hume is a born politician, reluctant to let go of the reins of power.

There is also a concern about the impact his departure could have on the SDLP's electoral fortunes.

Dominant figure

He has dominated nationalist politics and the SDLP for more than 20 years and is in many ways synonymous with the party.

And this begs the question: how would the party fare without Mr Hume at the helm? Could it continue to enjoy its position as the dominant voice of northern nationalism?

John Hume
A young Hume addresses a civil rights rally
Some believe if he is going to continue as leader, he needs to have a base at Westminster. And so, although Mr Hume is known to dislike the London Parliament, he is standing again for the seat he has held since 1983.

Mr Hume is one politician who, at present, does not have to worry about being dumped by his party.

He is too popular to remove, even though some colleagues believe a change now would help secure the longer term fortunes against the rising tide of a more youthful Sinn Fein leadership.

Others continue to insist Mr Hume is the party's greatest asset and fear a future without him at the helm. It is that pressure, coupled with his own deep-rooted desire to continue, that is probably motivating Mr Hume.

His personal vote at the last European election was his highest ever. He narrowly missed out on topping the poll. Mr Hume was just over 2,000 votes behind the DUP leader Ian Paisley.

Sinn Fein challenge

In Foyle, the SDLP remains the dominant political force with Mr Hume outpolling his Sinn Fein rival by two to one at the last general election.

Sinn Fein has made modest gains, but it is most likely the SDLP would still win the seat as long as Mr Hume's successor had his endorsement.

He engaged in talks with Gerry Adams giving republicans an opportunity to enter mainstream politics

In the longer term, Sinn Fein is hopeful of displacing the SDLP there. The Sinn Fein candidate, Mitchel McLaughlin, is seen as an ideal type - on the moderate wing of the republican movement.

Sinn Fein's growing electoral fortunes, ironically, are due in part to Mr Hume's desire to advance the peace process.

He engaged in talks with the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, giving republicans an opportunity to enter mainstream politics.

As republicans have embraced what was essentially an SDLP position - Irish unity with consent - their electoral fortunes have grown.

Without IRA violence, it has become more difficult to distinguish between the two parties. And some new voters find the younger Sinn Fein leadership - with its apparently tougher approach - more appealing.

Indeed, Mr Hume had to face down critics from within his own party when his pursuit of talks with Gerry Adams appeared to be fruitless - and threatening to the party's electoral base.

Mr Hume sharply asked if his critics cared more about saving lives or saving the party.



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