He has big shoes to fill, charismatically speaking. Until last November, the Social Democratic and Labour Party was led by John Hume, Nobel Peace Prize winner, singer of songs with President Clinton, darling of the world's press since he staked out a nonviolent Irish nationalism at the start of the Troubles. Durkan, the youngest of seven children raised on a police widow's pension, was Hume's detail man for two decades, turning the great leader's big but fuzzy visions into political reality. His skill at listening and bridging divides won him respect, and when Hume finally stepped down, Durkan ran unopposed (he joked that he was the "heir abhorrent"). Perversely, his very qualities of earnest decency may now be an electoral liability. The politicians who have won the most ink and plaudits as the peace process has lurched forward are not the responsible nice guys like Durkan, but the bomb throwers and rejectionists who have come in from the cold. In elections last summer, the S.D.L.P. slipped behind Sinn Fein, the political arm of the I.R.A., for the first time; since 1998 its vote share has dropped from first to fourth. Durkan deadpans that his party "has developed a powerful empathy with the prodigal son's brother."
His key problem is the youth vote. For those who came of age after the I.R.A.'s cease-fire in 1994, repugnance for its campaign of terror is not acutely felt, and under Gerry Adams Sinn Fein has looked tough and vigorous while still advocating nonviolence. Durkan has the right demographics to get their attention. Can he get their votes in an election just 15 months away? He works constantly, energizes party activists, and is eager to highlight differences with Sinn Fein. But he needs to relax on TV so his wit shows instead of his sobriety, and to attack opponents with gusto instead of sounding apologetic. He may also have to curb his instinct to reach out to unionists. Durkan's friendly ties with unionist leader David Trimble have certainly smoothed the work of government. But they leave him open to attack by Adams as not really committed to Irish unity. It's a strangely heartening sign of growing stability in Ulster that Durkan's best course may now be to put party ahead of country at least until the next election.
TIME: What message does your party have to get across?
Durkan: Thereís a danger that people assume our vision has already been achieved in the Good Friday agreement and the stage is now clear for others. The agreement is a huge achievement for the S.D.L.P., but itís really a point of departure, not a point of arrival. Thereís still a long way to go, and weíre going to find the path. Our performance in the government has been better and more constructive than any other partyís.
TIME: Does it frustrate you to see Sinn Fein doing so well?
Durkan:Republican leaders are now clearly basking as statesmen because of the way the peace process has worked. It reminds some of us of Groucho Marxís line about knowing Doris Day before she was a virgin; itís hard sometimes for a party that has always stood for nonviolence and was threatened and intimidated by people who are now coming forward in Sinn Fein. We knew we were taking an electoral risk in encouraging Sinn Fein into the political process. But itís still the best way forward for politics in our country.
TIME: What is the personal chemistry among the party leaders?
Durkan:The fact is we have been through some difficulties together, which gives you a new level of rapport and appreciation. It doesnít stop the fact that youíre still electoral rivals. Our traditional relationship has been about undermining each otherís cherished institutions and aspirations, fighting each other. We should now be underwriting our shared institutions. We must move from making demands against each other to making decisions with each other, and for each other.