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Colum Eastwood not ruling out running for Westminster after 'surprise' at Mark Durkan's Fine Gael switch

Colum Eastwood (right) said Mark Durkan had 'earned the right to make decisions about his future'. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood admitted yesterday he was "surprised" at Mark Durkan's decision to run as a Fine Gael candidate in the European election.

Mr Durkan's acceptance of an offer from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to stand in the Dublin constituency has sent shock waves through the party he once led.

His candidacy was a closely guarded secret and the party leader was only told a matter of hours before Monday's public announcement in Dublin.

Mr Durkan has said he has unilaterally suspended his membership of the SDLP, having been invited to join Fine Gael ahead of contesting the European Parliament election on May 26.

The move has been seen as a blow to Mr Eastwood's recent efforts to forge closer links with Fianna Fáil, the main rivals to Mr Durkan's new colleagues.

It also effectively ends speculation that the former deputy first minister, who resigned in 2010 as SDLP leader, will contest the next Westminster election and seek to regain the Foyle seat he lost in 2017.

The SDLP lost to Sinn Féin's Elisha McCallion by 169 votes, having held the seat for more than 30 years.

Given the narrow majority, Foyle was regarded as the SDLP's best hope of regaining a presence at Westminster, with Mr Durkan seen as its best candidate.

Speaking to The Irish News yesterday, Mr Eastwood said he was "surprised" by his predecessor's decision, as were many both inside and outside the party.

However, he said Mr Durkan had "earned the right to make decisions about his future".

"If elected he'll be a very good representative for the north and in the post-Brexit context, and we definitely need those," he said.

"There's no better person than Mark Durkan and I wish him well."

He rejected suggestions that the former Foyle MP had betrayed him or that he had damaged the SDLP's prospects of retaking Foyle.

He also dismissed calls for him to expel Mr Durkan from the SDLP.

Mr Eastwood said he would not rule out contesting an election in the constituency, which he currently represents as an MLA.

"That's a bit of a way off but I wouldn't rule anything out at this stage," he said.

He added that the Sinn Féin majority in Foyle was "not comfortable" and that the SDLP had a number of prospective candidates who could challenge the incumbent.

Mr Durkan also said yesterday that Pat Hume, the wife of former SDLP leader John Hume, had given his decision to stand for Fine Gael her blessing.

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