Hard to see what’s in an SDLP merger for Fianna Fáil
Brexit and its associated discontents may put FF off marching northwards
Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin is very more cautious about any merger with the SDLP. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
While the two parties are, as Gerry Moriarty reported over Christmas, on the cusp of announcing an active partnership and a series of shared policy priorities designed to set a new political agenda for Northern Ireland, I don’t think this will constitute a merger, and nor do I think that it will lead to one in the foreseeable future.
There will be no Fianna Fáil candidates running in the local elections in the North this May. The SDLP will have to stand on its own two feet for a bit longer.
The SDLP leader Colm Eastwood is gung-ho for the move, to be sure. But Micheál Martin is a lot more cautious. That, of course, is his nature. But he also has severe doubts about the move at a time of profound Brexit-related uncertainty.
Secret negotiations between the two sides have been proceeding for months, and have involved the exchange of documents on joint policies as well as an analysis on the state of Northern Ireland politics. I understand that none of these involved any suggestion of a merger.
There are mixed views in the SDLP. The party has always had a wing that was more aligned to the values and ethos of the Labour Party than with Fianna Fáil
The sense among some people in Fianna Fáil this week was that there was an attempt to bounce them into something that they either weren’t ready for, or that they hadn’t agreed to. That is unlikely to smooth events over the coming weeks.
Northern dimension That said, the mood in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary is generally well disposed towards co-operation with the SDLP to finally open a Northern dimension for the party. Several TDs who spoke privately about it yesterday were cautiously in favour, and some quite enthusiastic. Others, though, expressed doubts about the wisdom of proceeding at this stage, with one suggesting that the subject was one that most people were well disposed towards, but in no hurry to activate.
Talking to people at various levels of the party, the TDs’ views would seem to reflect the organisation at large. Supportive in principle, cautious in practice. “Someone else’s problem,” was the summary of one TD. Most of them complained about being kept in the dark about the leadership’s intentions, though that is hardly unusual in Fianna Fáil.
There are other views too, of course. Éamon Ó Cuiv, who was sacked from his front bench position before Christmas for attending an unauthorised “launch” of Fermanagh councillor Sorcha McAnespy as a Fianna Fáil candidate, told the Belfast Newsletter this week that he didn’t want the SDLP contaminating Fianna Fáil’s brand in the North. The party should run its own candidates, he suggested.
There are mixed views in the SDLP. The party has always had a wing that was more aligned to the values and ethos of the Labour Party than with Fianna Fáil, and since news of the moves toward merger broke over Christmas there has been a fair bit of pushback to the plan from within the organisation.
The party’s youth wing, as well as several individual figures such as Máiría Cahill, now an SDLP councillor, are opposed to the move. One SDLP person of a Labour-ish hue echoed Fianna Fáil’s complaints about being bounced into the move. But supporters say the councillors and the assembly members are overwhelmingly in favour.
The move seems borne as much out of desperation on the SDLP’s part as anything else. The assembly remains in cold storage. The party has no MPs, no MEPs. It has no functioning headquarters operation. It has long been supplanted by Sinn Féin as the voice of Northern nationalism.
The North is economically and politically dysfunctional, suffers from a glaring lack of leadership
Eastwood approached Fianna Fáil for help because he felt he was at the end of the road. “They need to be run professionally from Dublin,” says one SDLP-connected person. Whether Dublin wants to run them is another matter.
If all this smack’s of defeatism, that’s because it probably is. Floundering for a lifebelt, the SDLP grasps for Brexit. The former leader Margaret Richie said on Thursday night that the two parties could “fight the challenges of Brexit”.
In fact, Brexit and its associated discontents are as much a reason for Fianna Fáil not to pursue a march northwards. With unionist anxiety heightened – just as it was by the Good Friday Agreement and the Anglo-Irish Agreement before that – a Fianna Fáil takeover of the SDLP would likely be viewed by many unionists as a further threat to the constitutional position.
Sinn Féin has sought to use Brexit to advance the united Ireland agenda, and Fianna Fáil has fiercely criticised Mary Lou McDonald for doing so. Opening shop in the North would look like doing much the same thing.
Straddling both politics on the island will be extremely difficult for Fianna Fáil – because politics in both places is so different. The North certainly needs a new political departure.
It is economically and politically dysfunctional, suffers from a glaring lack of leadership and even when they are functioning, the shadow of sectarianism hangs over its governing institutions. But the problems of the south are different. The politics is different. The parties are different.
In an opinion piece in The Irish Times during the week, Derry grandee Denis Bradley hailed the proposed merger and declared that the “young turks” of the SDLP would bring “charisma and insights” to Fianna Fáil.
But to many people, meekly shuffling into a merger with Fianna Fáil (even if the larger party wanted it) will look like the young turks are just giving up.
In Thomond Park, the home of Munster rugby, the dressing room and the stands ring with the rousing anthem, “Stand up and fight.” Maybe the SDLP should learn the words.