Fianna Fáil and SDLP people feel now is the time to move on merger
Losing the SDLP name will rankle with many members of the party
Micheál Martin: he has tried to calm nerves without giving too much away
It’s been an 11-year courtship between Fianna Fáil and the SDLP, but despite renewed wooing there has been no engagement or wedding ring thus far. Yet now it seems the banns of marriage are to be published early in the new year.
Serious talk of some form of all-Ireland relationship between the two parties goes back to 2007 and the time of then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and former SDLP leader Mark Durkan, but the economic crash – and subsequent crash of Fianna Fáil – put everything on hold.
Now the political romance is back on. An announcement was expected from the respective Fianna Fáil and SDLP leaders Micheál Martin and Colum Eastwood before Christmas, but because of the Brexit issue it was decided to postpone any declaration until the new year.
Senior Fianna Fáil and SDLP sources were clear in the run-up to Christmas that there would be an important announcement very early in 2019, and those same sources appeared equally clear that indeed there will be a liaison between the parties. Some will see it as a dangerous one, but more of that later.
“It will be a process, and it will be very significant – it will be a new departure,” said one senior source.
The parties are primed to make an ambitious announcement, although there is still quite a bit of stage-fright about the project. Generally, though, from speaking to Fianna Fáil and SDLP people, the feeling is that now is the time to strike.
“If you are going to do this you need to do it now, or you need to stop doing it because this just can’t go on,” said a well-placed Fianna Fáil figure.
He was confident that, in particular, Martin would keep his nerve and push ahead with the project early in 2019, most likely around mid-January. Support for the move was backed by polling and research in Northern Ireland, he added.
Sources said the merger would happen on a phased basis, first with the party devising agreed policies, then developing plans to contest future elections, and finally ending up as “one all-island party which will be called Fianna Fáil”.
Losing the SDLP name will rankle with many members of the party of John Hume and Seamus Mallon. This may explain why prior to Christmas, according to sources, there was still no agreed timescale on when this would happen.
SDLP sources emphasised that key to the alignment was “maintaining the legacy of the SDLP”. One proposal was that when the final alliance is completed the SDLP name would be incorporated in the Fianna Fail title.
The sources expected there would be a series of announcements about the merger in the next eight weeks, culminating in fanfare for the amalgamation at the Fianna Fáil ardfheis in Dublin in February. They said the only possible block to that would be if Brexit totally dominates the news agenda.
The negotiations have been led for Fianna Fáil by Martin, his party general secretary Sean Dorgan and Donegal TD Charlie McConalogue, and for the SDLP Eastwood and deputy leader Nichola Mallon. The chief negotiators have kept discussions “very tight”, to such an extent that there has been relatively little leakage.
An example of that secrecy was how in October Fianna Fáil Galway West TD Eamon Ó Cuív and Senator Mark Daly were involved in an attempt in Omagh, Co Tyrone, to launch independent councillor Sorcha McAnespy as the Fianna Fail candidate in next May’s local government elections in Northern Ireland.
Senior people in Fianna Fáil and the SDLP were furious at what was viewed as a pre-emptive and unsanctioned move, particularly as it happened during a sensitive stage of negotiations. “It was cack-handed, it showed how little they knew about what was going on,” said an SDLP source.
Ó Cuív and Daly were sacked from senior frontbench posts as a result.
On a visit to Belfast in November, Martin tried to calm nerves without giving too much away. “What happened in Omagh was wrong. I have been very clear on that, I have taken action. No one can self-declare as a candidate.”
And he outlined how the Fianna Fáil-SDLP talks were at an advanced stage.
“There has been a series of meetings, an exchange of documents. This is a very significant issue in itself and demands substantial consideration,” he said. Engagement was “steady and substantive”.
The terms of the proposed tie-up are not yet fully nailed down, according to well-placed sources. But, they said, it would involve an evolving process where there would be agreement on policy first and a closer relationship developing on a phased basis thereafter.
The first electoral challenge north of the Border is the May local elections. Negotiators were seeking to determine whether Fianna Fáil and the SDLP could stand candidates on a shared platform but prior to Christmas the view seemed to be that May would be too early and that instead SDLP candidates might stand with the “endorsement” of Fianna Fáil. That was still work in progress, the sources said.
'Among the parliamentary team and the councillors there is overwhelming support' for sealing the deal
There are risks for both parties as well as opportunities. For instance, as one senior SDLP opponent of the link-up outlined, were candidates from the Fianna Fáil-SDLP stable to perform poorly against Sinn Féin in the North’s council elections, it could have a knock-on demoralising impact on Fianna Fail as it prepares for its contest against Sinn Féin and the other parties in the next general election in the Republic.
In the 2014 local elections the SDLP won 66 seats compared to Sinn Féin’s 105, and equally were that representation to increase and Sinn Féin’s to drop then it could prove a boost for Fianna Fáil as Martin and Mary Lou McDonald prepare to shape up to each other.
Linking up with Fianna Fáil causes difficulty for some in the SDLP who remember how Hume was keen to have an open relationship with all the main parties south of the Border. Also, some in the party see the SDLP as more in the tradition of the Labour Party in the Republic.
One with serious reservations is South Belfast Assembly member Claire Hanna, viewed as a potential future leader of the SDLP.
“I think a link with Fianna Fáil or any one southern party inevitably limits our appeal; it limits our influence in southern politics,” she said. “Part of Hume’s genius was that he developed strong relationships with all the parties of democratic Irish nationalism and with social democratic parties across Europe.”
Hanna also is conscious that over the decades the SDLP was able to garner second and indeed some first preference votes from people not of the nationalist persuasion – votes that can be crucial in winning difficult seats. Some of those people would have been unionists who would have given the SDLP a vote to reflect their, perhaps, antipathy to a hardline DUP candidate or to try to keep a Sinn Féin candidate out. Hanna now wonders where would those votes go if there were a Fianna Fáil-SDLP union.
“The strength of the SDLP brand is that it can attract votes from across the community, including the growing number of people who don’t want to define around the constitutional question.”
Despite Hanna’s concerns it does seem, as one senior party source said, that “among the parliamentary team and the councillors there is overwhelming support” for sealing the deal.
Some SDLP members concede that some of that support has a negative basis: that the party is broke; that, to quote one figure, “it is a question of Hobson’s Choice”; that such are the ill fortunes of the SDLP that “it has nowhere else to go”.
The figures prove those points have merit: in the post-Belfast Agreement 1998 Assembly elections the SDLP won 178,000 votes compared to 143,000 for Sinn Féin. In the same elections last year Sinn Féin had 224,000 votes compared to the 96,000 mustered by the SDLP. Now Sinn Féin has more than double the number of seats of the SDLP – 27 seats to 12 – and to add insult to injury it has no seats in Westminster.
One of the arguments against the deal from people in Hanna’s camp is that if the SDLP could get its organisational act together it could put up a better challenge to Sinn Féin for the nationalist vote.
The message I am getting on the ground is ‘when are you going to do it, get on with it, hurry up'
Yet others acknowledge for the past 20 years the SDLP never has been able to match Sinn Féin organisationally. That is evident in how election after election Sinn Féin candidates knock on doors accompanied by armies of canvassers while SDLP candidates generally operate in small units.
Supporters of the alliance say that Fianna Fáil will help bring structure and finance in order to improve the SDLP organisation.
Armagh All-Ireland football medallist Justin McNulty also said there was “overwhelming support” for the tie-up. “The message I am getting on the ground is ‘when are you going to do it, get on with it, hurry up’,” said the Newry and Armagh Assembly member.
He too has been kept away from the detail of this prospective partnership but nonetheless said he was “trusting the leadership to come to an arrangement that does protect the legacy of the SDLP, and meets the challenges of today”.
He said an all-island relationship with Fianna Fáil would allow a sharp distinction to be drawn with Sinn Féin. Ultimately he would like a Border poll but not now, as Sinn Féin is demanding “The idea of a Border poll now would lead to chaos on top of the chaos of the Brexit bonkers. We are off the cliff edge, and we need a safe pair of hands.”
He portrayed the SDLP and Fianna Fáil as presenting a more acceptable and moderate form of nationalism that would put it up to Sinn Féin on both sides of the border. Both parties would “respect the British identity on this island”, he said.
“The SDLP is not a party of banners and propaganda politics who are only interested in delivering an increased vote for the party. We are interested in doing the right thing,” added McNulty.
A similar argument was put by a leading Fianna Fáil enthusiast for the project, who said the linked-up party would be “inclusive” and not one that “rubs its republicanism in your face” or “uses the Irish language for political purposes”.
“I don’t imagine a lot of unionists will be voting for Fianna Fáil, but there are people in the middle ground in the North who do not think about constitutional issues every day, who want someone who will seriously talk about bread and butter matters rather than protesting about them.”