SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell has dismissed speculation that a rift between himself and Conall McDevitt influenced the South Belfast MLA’s decision to quit politics.
Mr McDevitt resigned with immediate effect earlier this week after damaging revelations about £6,750 in undeclared income from a leading PR firm.
Despite no aspects of his complicated financial affairs being illegal – including payments to his wife who worked as a researcher for the Policing Board member – Mr McDevitt said his failure to declare the full extent of the arrangements fell short of expected standards.
The former MLA, who had previously worked in public relations, was widely regarded as one of the SDLP’s most effective representatives and a likely eventual replacement for the current leader.
Speaking yesterday, the South Belfast MP said: “Conall was a very valued member of the Assembly – he had made a tremendous impact. Conall was my closest friend and associate politically and I am aggrieved at the position he has found himself in.”
Mr McDonnell also claimed that the PR expert would continue to be one of his key background advisors.
Many of Mr McDevitt’s political opponents joined some of his former SDLP colleagues in praising his contribution to local politics.
Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly described Mr McDevitt as one of the SDLP’s “brightest stars” and said his departure was a “sad day” for the party.
“I, like many people across the north, am personally devastated by the news that Conall has resigned from the party.
“He set a very high standard for himself and he accepted a very high price.”
As well as vacancies in the Assembly and on the Policing Board, the SDLP will have to select Mr McDevitt’s successor on the Stormont health committee and as Alex Attwood’s partner at next week’s Haass talks.
Two early front-runners to fill the vacancy at Stormont are former broadcast journalist Ferghal McKinney and Belfast city councillor Claire Hanna.
Yesterday afternoon, Mr McDevitt reaffirmed that he had permanently quit politics.
As well as appealing for privacy, he told the News Letter: “I’m now a private citizen. I won’t be returning to public life.”
Some political opponents have been generous in their praise of Mr McDevitt. TUV leader Jim Allister said: “Though opposed to Conall McDevitt’s politics, he had talent and ability well above the average MLA. Not an easy decision for him.”