Fianna Fail may stand for elections in North


An  internal debate is taking place within Fianna Fáil that could lead to the party contesting elections in Northern Ireland following the elections due in May for control of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In a New Year interview with the Sunday Business Post, the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, left open the possibility of Fianna Fáil setting up an organisation in Northern Ireland.

Delegates to the last Fianna Fáil Ardfheis passed a motion calling for such a move.

However, no formal investigation of the matter is under way, a party source said yesterday.

In the newspaper interview, Mr Ahern said: "In terms of political realignments, I am not going to speculate what other parties may or may not do.

"What I will say is that at our last ardfheis, the delegates passed a motion calling on the party to organise and contest elections on a 32-county basis and this is something our National Executive is going to have to take a look at."

He went on: "There are many historic arguments for and against such a course and I am not going to pre-empt that discussion but I do think that since the Good Friday agreement, the context and the dynamic of politics on this island have changed and this is something Fianna Fáil as a party must be conscious of."

A senior party figure told The Irish Times last night that there has been "an informal debate" on the issue "for some time. But it has been very informal and scattered," he said.

Nevertheless, some Fianna Fáil members argue that a presence in Northern Ireland will become "inevitable" over time, if only to counter Sinn Féin's attempt to tag itself as an all-Ireland party.

The move will be opposed by many of those most centrally involved in the peace process, who believe that Fianna Fáil would end up hurting the SDLP if it ran candidates in the Northern Ireland elections.

The proposal has not been discussed by Fianna Fail's National Executive, but there is no possibility of a final decision being made before the elections take place.

Mr Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, indicated yesterday that there was no change to his view that there will be a realignment to politics within Ireland as a whole and that the SDLP will be a catalyst for that rather than a casualty of it.

Mr Durkan has referred to the issue on more than one occasion since assuming the leadership in November last year. In response to calls from some party members for a closer relationship with Fianna Fáil, Mr Durkan said in the immediate aftermath of the Republic's general election: "Talk of mergers between the SDLP and any given southern party as a short-term prospect is misplaced and untimely."

The Irish Times understands that the party is open to considering co-operation rather than formal mergers with other political parties.

However, he added: "But we are right to register again that we see and seek the emergence of a new political complexion."

This is a sentiment not unlike that expressed by the Taoiseach in his interview at the weekend.

He also said: "We are also right to stress the immediate importance of consolidating the Good Friday agreement as mandated by the Irish people.

"It would be wrong therefore, to prematurely induce a partisan contrivance that might do more to create uncertainty and dissonance in the immediate context which could damage or confuse the agreement's working prospects."

Various Sinn Féin members were approached for comment but none were available.