SDLP leader Mark Durkan today announced his intention to step down as party leader after the next UK general election.

The Foyle MP said he will defend his Westminster seat next year and, if successful, will not seek re-election to the Stormont Assembly.

Mr Durkan said he would like to see a new leader in place well ahead of the next Assembly elections, which are expected in 2011.

The move is not unexpected, given that the 49-year-old has already stated he did not want to continue to lead the party past his 50th birthday.

‘My position is that if I am elected again to Westminster as MP for Foyle I will be stepping down from the Assembly,’ he said.

‘I've said that openly on the record because I don't believe that that you can sustain dual mandates any longer.’

The former Deputy First Minister replaced John Hume as leader of the nationalist party in 2001.

With no clear successor waiting in the wings, Mr Durkan's decision to step aside is likely to trigger a leadership contest.