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Mark Durkan to be Fine Gael candidate in European elections

Former SDLP leader Mark Durkan arriving at a press conference with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association

Former SDLP leader Mark Durkan is to stand for Fine Gael in the European elections so that Northern Ireland can have a voice in Europe after Brexit, the taoiseach has said.

The ex-Foyle MP will contest a Dublin seat in May's poll in what Leo Varadkar described as a decision about the "political future of our island".

Mr Durkan, from Derry, lost his Foyle seat to Elisha McCallion of Sinn Féin by just 169 votes in 2017.

The SDLP had held the seat since former party leader John Hume was elected in 1983.

Speaking at a press conference in Dublin today, Mr Durkan said had been invited to run by the taoiseach.

"I'm here as I received a bold and genuine and brilliant invitation by the taoiseach and Fine Gael to allow my name to go forward for the European election," he said.

"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.

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

"Obviously, going forward, I will be putting on a Fine Gael vest but I will not hide my SDLP jersey underneath.

"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."

Mr Durkan continued: "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," he said.

"A strong team Ireland that stands for decency against the populism we see now."

Asked why he does not intend to stand as an independent: "I received an invitation, should I have sidestepped that invitation?"

"I respect the role of other parties. I've worked closely with the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but I wouldn't expect anyone to stand aside for me or put me first, this came from Fine Gael leadership," he said.

"Dublin is my capital city and I want to serve the people of Dublin."

Mr Varadkar confirmed that Mr Durkan would be running for his party.

"We've asked Mark Durkan to join our party and put his name forward to contest the European election for Dublin," he said.

"In the European Parliament we need people with experience and vision who can work for the island as a whole.

"Mark has served as an MP, an MLA and alongside John Hume.

"Mark was there with John Hume when he took the courageous step to begin the Hume/Adams talks.

"He epitomises public service and it's hard to think of a less ego-driven politician."

Mr Varadkar continued: "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.

"My decision to ask him to run has nothing to do with domestic politics but the political future of our island.

"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."

Fine Gael senator Neale Richmond tweeted that Mr Durkan would be a "serious addition to the Fine Gael party at this crucial time for our island".

The party, led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, is in a minority government in the Republic, supported by a 'confidence and supply' agreement with Fianna Fáil.

Mr Durkan's decision to stand in the Republic comes after the SDLP voted to enter into a formal partnership with Fianna Fáil.

In a statement, the SDLP said: "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.  

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

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