Few organisations are more resistant to change than political parties. Following decades of rumours and tentative discussions, however, it now appears that a cooperative arrangement involving Fianna Fáil and the SDLP could be announced later this year. Fianna Fáil/SDLP candidates could challenge the growing power of Sinn Féin at the local and European elections in Northern Ireland.
It almost happened 10 years ago. Back then, discussions involving then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and SDLP leader Mark Durkan caused the Fianna Fáil leader to declare that, together, the parties could dramatically enhance the lives of people on this island. Sinn Féin's growth on both sides of the border had spooked the Soldiers of Destiny. But the economic crash and Fianna Fáil's electoral collapse placed plans for a merger on hold.
The proposed merger would also involve other figures from the constitutional nationalist tradition in an attempt to ensure there is no friction between the Fianna Fáil and SDLP camps. In particular, that could help mollify those within the SDLP who feel their party is ideologically closer to the Labour Party than to Fianna Fáil.
The SDLP has been losing ground to Sinn Féin for the past 17 years, ever since the two governments sidelined the party during their efforts to get Sinn Féin and the DUP to share power in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist Party suffered a similar fate as official policy promoted the political extremes.
Circumstances in Northern Ireland are auspicious for a Fianna Fáil intervention. The Executive and Assembly have been suspended for almost two years because of disagreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP. The prospects for an early accommodation look bleak, in spite of incipient direct rule and the threat to living standards posed by Brexit. This political vacuum has damaged public confidence and contributed to a rise in support for dissident republican organisations. So, with the SDLP greatly reduced in political strength, an injection of financial and organisational muscle from Fianna Fáil could make a difference. But early success under a joint Fianna Fáil/SDLP banner is not certain. And sensitive handling of SDLP concerns will be vital.
Fianna Fáil's strategy has been designed to reinforce the political middle ground in Northern Ireland, while guarding against further Sinn Féin advances in the South. Like Sinn Féin and the Green Party it will be able to claim a 32-county mandate and project a more nationalistic image than Fine Gael. The SDLP and its leader Colum Eastwood have been under considerable pressure. An association with Fianna Fáil, combined with its proud legacy as a constitutional nationalist party and its roots in the civil rights movement, may inject a fresh appeal for moderate nationalists.