by Democrat reporter
Veteran nationalist politician John Hume has announced that he is to stand down as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.
Poor health is widely regarded to be behind the resignation, which looks set to take effect from the party's annual conference in November.
Hume, who first came to prominence during the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, is also a member of the Westminster parliament and an MEP. He has been leader of the SDLP since taking over from Gerry, now Lord, Fitt in 1979.
Following his announcement, praise for the SDLP leader came from across the political spectrum.
Hume's contribution to the search for peace in the north of Ireland was considerable, said Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Adams cited Hume's courage and an ability to keep his "eye on the prize and away from sectional and other interests" as significant factors in getting them to where they were now.
Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble praised Hume's efforts to find an agreed resolution to the conflict which had helped to create "a space where dialogue between unionists and nationalists became possible".
Northern secretary John Reid described Hume as an enormous force for peace.
Stormont finance and personnel minister Mark Durkan looks set to be given a clear run to replace Hume as party leader. However, a hot contest looks likely for the post of deputy leader following Seamus Mallon's decision to stand down at the same time as Hume.
To date, Stormont agriculture minister Brid Rodgers and Stormont cabinet colleagues Sean Farren and Denis Haughey and former Belfast mayor and Assembly member Alban Maginness have all entered the contest.
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