FORMER SDLP leader Mark Durkan is to run for Fine Gael in the European elections.
Mr Durkan has joined Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s party in the wake of the Fianna Fail partnership with the SDLP.
The 58-year-old is a former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland finance minister, Westminster MP and Northern Ireland MLA.
He will run for Fine Gael in the European elections in Dublin alongside former Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald.
Mr Durkan was Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2002 and the leader of the SDLP from 2001 to 2010. He lost his seat in Westminster to Sinn Fein in the last election.
His signing will be viewed as a swipe by Fine Gael at Fianna Fail following the SDLP link up.
He is being unveiled by Mr Varadkar and Tanaiste Simon Coveney ahead of the party’s selection convention for the European elections on Wednesday.
Mr Fitzgerald, the Dublin Mid-West TD and former Justice Minister, is the only candidate contesting that convention.
She remains the favourite to take the seat being vacated by sitting Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes, who is returning to take up a role as chief executive of the Banking and Payments Federation.
However, Mr Durkan follows the path of former SDLP members John Cushnahan and Austin Currie in running for Fine Gael.
Mr Cushnahan became an MEP for Munster and Mr Currie was a TD in Dublin West and presidential election candidate. His daughter, Emer Currie, will be the Taoiseach’s running mate in Dublin West in the next general election.
An SDLP spokesperson has wished Mr Durkan well in the upcoming election.
“Mark Durkan provided the people of Derry with a first class public service for decades.
“He is a first class parliamentarian and his regrettable absence on the benches of Westminster has not gone unnoticed by parties and communities alike,” the spokesperson said.
“We wish him well in the upcoming European election.
“Ireland can only benefit from having Mark Durkan back on a parliament bench.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar criticised the Fianna Fail-SDLP link up last week. Pointing to the deal between the Conservatives and the DUP, he said a similar dynamic could arise if Fianna Fail were in government.
“The decision that Fine Gael, my party, has taken is that rather than aligning ourselves with any one political party in Northern Ireland, that we think it’s better for Fine Gael as a party – but also as a party of Government – to try to work with all parties, to be an honest broker where there is a disagreement and also, in particular, reach out to the centre ground of people in politics but also people beyond politics who want a shared future,” he said.
Mr Varadkar does have a good relationship with Mr Durkan. The Taoiseach spoke at a dinner in honour of Mr Durkan in Derry last year, where he said he was “a towering figure in politics”.
“He was central to the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement. His unshakeable belief in what was right and just delivered results for all of the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
Mr Durkan is married to Jackie and they have one child, Dearbhail.
He was a member of the SDLP from the early 1980s at the height of the Troubles.
In the mid 1980s, he became then leader John Hume’s parliamentary assistant in Westminster and also organised by-election campaigns for Seamus Mallon and Eddie McGrady.
During the 1990s, he became SDLP chairman and a member of the party’s peace process negotiating team in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement.
He was subsequently elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, becoming finance minister, then replacing Seamus Mallon as Deputy First Minister and becoming party leader.
Mr Durkan replaced Mr Hume as MP for Foyle in 2005, stood down as party leader in 2010, but held the Westminster seat until 2017, when he was beaten by Sinn Fein in an SDLP wipeout.