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Eddie McGrady retires

Mark Devenport | 21:38 UK time, Thursday, 25 February 2010

I went to Newry today to attend the funeral of a friend. En route I drove past the entrance to the courthouse damaged by the bomb earlier this week. It's a very solid building but it clearly took a pounding. Then I made my way to the south of the town, near where the old Cloghogue checkpoint used to be. It brought back memories of darker days when I would have been driving frantically around the border area trying to gather pictures or interviews on incidents like the murder of the Hanna family or the ambush of Lord Justice Gibson. I recalled interviewing locals fearful that their properties could get caught in the frequent IRA attacks on the border security bases.

Bearing this in mind, it was good to see the old observation tower long gone and a golf driving range on top of a nearby snowy hill. Nevertheless, after this week's attack on the courthouse, and the Real IRA murder of Kieran Doherty in Londonderry, many feel a sense of real anxiety about the possibility we could be slipping back into more troubled times.

Whilst in Newry I got a call to head for Downpatrick, where the veteran MP Eddie McGrady had something to say. Driving via Hilltown, the scenes to either side of the road looked strikingly alpine.

Sitting in Mr McGrady's offices, which are decked out with black and white photos of the highlights from his long career, also made me quite nostalgic about filming him decades ago when Margaret Ritchie was best known as his office assistant. Just last September, Mr McGrady sent out signals that he would stand one more time for Westminster. But now he has had a rethink, deciding at 74 that it's time to go.

The decision poses a headache for Margaret Ritchie, who is already holding down three jobs as MLA, Social Development Minister and Party Leader. Mark Durkan stepped down because he wanted to concentrate on just one job, defending his seat in Foyle. Although Eddie McGrady wouldn't endorse any successor he told me that he would have no objection if his new leader followed in his footsteps by going to Westminster. There's strong speculation that she will put her hat in the ring, in which case you would think that something - perhaps her ministerial portfolio - would have to give.

However before Ms Ritchie needs to make that decision there's the not inconsiderable matter of geting elected. Sinn Fein have already chosen the Education Minister Caitriona Ruane as their candidate. Republicans were bouyed up by Bairbre De Brun's performance in South Down during last year's European election (as reflected in informal tallies). Nevertheless the SDLP claim to be confident of defending the seat, and no doubt unionist tactical voting may play a part.


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