Fianna Fáil and the SDLP remain on course to begin a process ultimately designed to lead to the integration of the two parties, according to well-placed sources from the parties.
The Fianna Fáil and SDLP leaders Micheál Martin and Colum Eastwood hope to be in a position early this year, possibly later this month, to announce the start of a project calculated eventually to "evolve" into a formal link-up of the two parties, according to sources.
Notwithstanding some nervousness and concerns, particularly within the SDLP, following Monday's Irish Times report of a phased integration plan they said the project remained on course to go ahead.
“It will be a process, not a big bang; there will be no resiling from this,” said a senior Fianna Fáil source.
The sources added that the process would happen over a number of phases with, initially, an announcement about co-operation between the parties and the development of agreed all-island policies.
“Initially the focus will be on co-operation and partnership and electoral co-operation rather than any talk of a merger. This has to evolve. You can’t just take two political parties and immediately mash them together,” said a senior source.
He added that ultimately the plan was for the integration of the two parties although as yet no definite timeframe for when this should happen has been agreed.
“Everyone knows it has to happen. Once started it can’t be stopped, you can’t be half married,” he added.
Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy said that the "merger of two partitionist parties would be a long overdue development".
However, sources repeated that it was unlikely that the two parties would be in a position to run candidates under a single SDLP-Fianna Fáil umbrella in the May local elections in Northern Ireland. And that instead SDLP candidates may stand with the "endorsement" of Fianna Fáil.
However, there is potential for splintering as South Belfast Assembly member Claire Hanna has already expressed reservations.
Belfast Cllr Tim Attwood, who is also on the Labour wing of the party, would have concerns while Lisburn SDLP Cllr Brian Heading also indicated he would have problems.
In addition SDLP Youth stated it was “against any merger, working arrangement, etc with any party whose values and principles are contradictory to the values and principles of the SDLP”.
Nonetheless, those behind the initiative are confident that a significant majority of the SDLP at Assembly and councillor level either support or would acquiesce to a developing relationship between the two parties. “Numerically the party is for it,” said an SDLP source.
‘SDLP ready to embrace change’
Sources said efforts would be made to “accommodate” some of those concerns while there also would be a concentration on maintaining the “brand and civil rights legacy” of the SDLP.
The sources also emphasised that the tie-up between the two parties was predicated on Brexit and a changing political landscape on the island of Ireland rather than a “save the SDLP” enterprise.
Mr Eastwood in a new year message made no direct reference to an evolving alliance between Fianna Fáil and his party, but did say that the SDLP was “ready to embrace change”.
“Since our foundation the SDLP has led much of the political advancement that Ireland has experienced. We want to lead that change again. We are determined to ensure that we are in a position to do so,” he said.
Labour leader Brendan Howlin repeated his party conference commitment in November to "step in" if the SDLP allied with Fianna Fáil.
"What that means is that we will actively support our comrades in Northern Ireland to continue to put a social democratic option to the people at elections," he said.