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Mark Durkan's niece suggested as possible replacement at Foyle election

Former SDLP leader Mark Durkan lost his Westminster seat to Sinn Féin's Elisha McCallion in 2017. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Seamus McKinney

A niece of Mark Durkan is among those being suggested as a possible candidate to replace him in the next general election.

The former Foyle MP’s shock announcement that he intends standing for Fine Gael in a Dublin constituency in this year’s European Parliament election stunned the SDLP.

It also created a headache for leader Colum Eastwood as it was assumed Mr Durkan would attempt to win back the Westminster seat he lost to Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion in 2017.

As the party licked its wounds yesterday, speculation has already started as to who might stand.

While not officially due for three years, an election could be called at any time amid the instability created by Brexit.

Several names have been suggested, including that of barrister Mary Durkan, Mr Durkan’s niece.

The Derry woman, who is also a sister of SDLP assembly member Mark H Durkan, is standing for the party in May's local government elections for Derry City and Strabane District Council.

Former SDLP director of communications Ruairi O’Kane suggested the party would hope to field a strong candidate from within the Foyle constituency, given Derry’s symbolic significance.

“I think everyone just assumed that Mark would be the next general election candidate and it would have been a shock if he hadn’t been selected. But the bigger the gap between the last election and the next one, the harder it would become to win back the seat although it is certainly winnable,” he said.

Although Mr Eastwood has not ruled out standing himself, Mr O’Kane said he is more likely to seek another candidate.

“I can’t see him attempting to lead the party from Westminster if he was to win the seat. I think he will look to the local council. The names that immediately come to mind are Sinead McLaughlin and Mary Durkan.”

Co-opted onto the council, Ms McLaughlin is a former chief executive of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

Mr O’Kane said both women “tick a lot of the boxes” although other contenders include Mark H Durkan and councillor Brian Tierney.

“But I think they’ll be looking for someone who is new and young,” he said.

Well-known election number cruncher and former SDLP Derry chairman Gerry Murray said he got a sense the party is still trying to deal with the shock of Mr Durkan’s switch to Dublin.

“I don’t think the (general election) issue has arisen for discussion yet,” he said.

Ms McLaughlin told The Irish News her “whole focus” was on May’s local government poll.

“A lot of thought will have to go into this. Mark represented Foyle so well over many years. We must make sure it is someone who can fill his shoes,” she said.

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