An SDLP minister has said his party is ready and able to defeat a bid by Martin McGuinness to seize one of its Foyle seats in the upcoming elections, invoking the Battle of Stalingrad as an analogy.
Mark H Durkan was reacting to reports that the Deputy First Minister is to vie for a seat in the SDLP-dominated constituency in the May Assembly elections.
Mr Durkan heads the Department of the Environment and is among a trio of SDLP MLAs in the constituency (with party leader Colum Eastwood and Gerard Diver being the other two).
He noted that the party had seen off attempts to undermine its dominance in Foyle before, and likened one previous fight to the Nazi-Soviet battle for the city of Stalingrad from 1942 to 1943 – one of the bloodiest battles in history.
Sinn Fein last night would neither confirm nor deny the reports that Mr McGuinness is to stand in Foyle, rather than his current constituency of Mid Ulster.
Paul Fleming, its group leader on Derry City and Strabane District Council, said only that the News Letter should speak to the party’s central press office.
When the paper did so, a PR officer said simply that the situation would become clearer today.
Mr Durkan, who heads the Department of the Environment, said: “We’re confident in the strength of our team, of our ticket. We’re confident in the strength of our vote – and we’re confident that we’re worthy of it...
“For nine years, he [Mr McGuinness] has been joint First Minister, and delivery to Derry from a government he has been head of has been minimal.”
It was put to him that, given Mr McGuinness’ high-profile persona, the SDLP would have a fight on its hands.
“Oh, without a doubt,” he said.
“We have defended Foyle successfully on more than one occasion, when we have been written off.
“If you look back at the 2005 General Election it was seen very much as our Stalingrad, where a big play was made for the seat here.
“Mitchel McLaughlin was the candidate, and Sinn Fein threw more at that – and I’d say spent more on that – than any candidate, in any election, ever, in western Europe!
“That’s not hyperbole – they threw the kitchen sink at that. And we fought them off. And I’d be confident in our ability to do the same now.”
He added: “I welcome his participation given that it already has, I suppose, created a bit more interest here.
“And the more people that participate in the democratic process the better.”
MAKE-UP OF CONSTITUENCY:
Foyle is 75 per cent Catholic and 22 per cent Protestant and ‘other Christian’, and is currently represented by three SDLP members, two SF members, and the DUP’s Gary Middleton.
A formal announcement of Sinn Fein’s move is expected to be made at a party in Londonderry’s the Millennium Forum during late morning.
A Sinn Fein source said of Mr McGuinness’ planned move: “This is a strategic decision to consolidate the delivery of key projects for the north-west, including the expansion of Magee, the upgrades of the A5 and A6 roads and creating employment.”