FF-SDLP partnership has a chance, but both sides must commit
Northern Ireland is a sceptical place, and previous alliances failed to achieve lift-off
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood at the launch of the new partnership in Belfast. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Micheál Martin and Colum Eastwood were careful to avoid creating any hostages to fortune when they announced the new “unprecedented” and “historic” Fianna Fáil-SDLP official connection.
It was a partnership, not a merger, said Eastwood, with Martin steadfastly refusing to speculate beyond what was actually being launched.
But journalists pressed them to state categorically for the record that a merger would never happen, which they both carefully avoided doing.
“We have time, we are not pre-determining the outcome,” said Eastwood, who emphasised that he wanted the partnership to “evolve”.
Fianna Fáil and the SDLP won’t be running joint candidates in the May local elections, but the Fianna Fáil machine would be utilised to assist SDLP candidates during the campaign.
And as to whether the two parties subsequently would stand joint candidates in the North, well, that would unfold however it unfolded.
It was evident that after a year of tight negotiations the two parties have greater if incrementalist ambitions for the joint venture.
But first it was best to determine if the parties could circumvent what Brendan Behan described as the first item on republican agendas: the split.
Eleven of the SDLP’s 12 Assembly members turned up for the launch to join several of their counterparts from Fianna Fáil. No sign, however, of Éamon Ó Cuív, whose premature attempt to bounce his leader into an alliance with the SDLP last year cost him his frontbench post.
(Ó Cuív attended the October 2018 “election launch” of Omagh councillor Sorcha McAnespy, who was “unveiled” as a Fianna Fáil candidate for the Northern Ireland local elections. But party headquarters later insisted no decision had been taken on “whether or not it will contest elections in the North”.)
There was quite some emphasis on the negative on Thursday, which must have annoyed Martin and Eastwood
Eastwood is anxious she would stay because she is one of the sharpest of the party’s leading politicians, and because she stands a good chance of taking back the South Belfast House of Commons seat the SDLP lost to the DUP in 2017.
MLA Pat Catney, whose seat is in Lagan Valley in the Lisburn area where unionist preferences helped get him elected, said the nature of life and politics was that “nothing remains the same”. His message for his friend Hanna was: “There is no threat in any of this as far as I am concerned.”
Northern Ireland is a sceptical place and there was quite some emphasis on the negative on Thursday, which must have annoyed Martin and Eastwood as, after many years of dithering, primarily by other Fianna Fáil and SDLP leaders, they finally unveiled their great project.
There were reminders of how a similar idea, the 2009 alliance of the Tories and the Ulster Unionist Party, under the unhappily titled Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force, failed to achieve lift-off.
Fianna Fáil and the SDLP, however, were insistent that in the context of Brexit, a renewed focus on a united Ireland and the paralysis at Stormont, there was a real need and a genuine opportunity for this new arrangement.
It does have a chance. But it can only work if the two parties, particularly the SDLP which is not noted for its drive and organisational capability, invest the energy and commitment the enterprise requires.
This partnership only comes into effect if it gains the support of the February 9th SDLP annual conference. With 11 of the 12 MLAs on side, that shouldn’t be a problem for Eastwood.