Conall McDevitt, one of the SDLP’s most able representatives and a man seemingly destined to be the party’s next leader, last night stunned the political world by quitting politics.
The ambitious South Belfast MLA, who was just 36 votes behind Alasdair McDonnell in the 2011 SDLP leadership contest, gave a series of interviews at tea time yesterday announcing his departure from public life.
The former PR man made the dramatic decision public in television interviews where he appeared close to tears. Last night he appealed for his family and himself to be given privacy.
It appears that it had been about to emerge that Mr McDevitt had not declared in the Assembly’s register of members’ interests a payment of £6,750 from public relations company Weber Shandwick. Mr McDevitt had been managing director of the global PR firm’s Belfast officer prior to becoming an MLA.
Mr McDevitt insisted that the money “related to internal work within Weber Shandwick” and that he was “never asked to nor did I ever represent any of the company’s clients whilst an MLA”.
Revealing a somewhat complex web of financial arrangements, he said that the payments were made to his wife’s company, JM Consulting.
It had already been revealed by the BBC that Mr McDevitt had paid that firm from his Assembly expenses without registering his wife’s interest in the company.
Mr McDevitt – who some thought should be the SDLP’s candidate in next year’s European election – said that his resignation was “with immediate effect”.
He insisted that “I am satisfied that at all times I complied with the obligations on me and am compliant with my duties”.
The money from Weber Shandwick came between March and August 2010, he said, in return for “support and mentoring to the new management team following my departure from the company”.
He confirmed that the payments were “registerable interests under the Assembly rules” and added: “I have now registered these earnings on my register. My failure to register these interests at the time means that I have fallen below the standards expected of me in public office.
“I have done my best to discharge my duties as an MLA with integrity but there is no question that I failed to do so on this occasion.
“I apologise unreservedly for my failures in this regard.
“It has been the greatest honour of my professional life to serve the people of South Belfast and the SDLP since January 2010. I will forever treasure the opportunity given to me to make a contribution to the building of a new society here. That work will be continued by my successor whomever he or she may be.”
Dr McDonnell accepted his South Belfast colleague’s resignation.
The MP and MLA said in a statement: “Conall McDevitt has done the right thing by resigning after admitting his failure to register funds received by him during his time as MLA in accordance with Assembly rules. I welcome Conall’s speedy response in this regard.
“As elected representatives we quite rightly hold ourselves and are held by the electorate to a very high standard.
“South Belfast was very well represented by Conall McDevitt and he made a very positive contribution not only to the constituency but also to the wider SDLP party.”
Yesterday the BBC revealed that Mr McDevitt’s wife, Joanne Murphy, a Queen’s University academic, had received more than £30,000 over the last two years for work as a researcher assisting his role on the Policing Board.
Ms Murphy’s company JM Consulting was also paid more than £14,000 for research and secretarial work from Mr McDevitt’s expenses.
Last night TUV leader Jim Allister said: “Though opposed to Conall McDevitt’s politics, he had talent and ability well above the average MLA”, adding that it was “not an easy decision for him”.