Newton Emerson: Soldiers of a squandered northern destiny
Fianna Fáil appears to have missed boat for any merger with SDLP in the North
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: An SDLP-Fianna Fáil merger has become like fusion power – a tiresomely familiar promise to solve all the world’s ills that never seems to get any closer. Photograph: Alan Betson
Fianna Fáil and the SDLP have left it too late for their merger. It is not as if they were short of time.
Leading SDLP figures were discussing the idea in public as far back as 2003, just after Stormont’s last major collapse. By 2008, with Stormont restored, Fianna Fáil had registered itself in the North and the SDLP had established a working group to consider what it termed “political realignment in Ireland”.
In 2014, Fianna Fáil announced it would contest the 2019 council elections in Northern Ireland, setting a deadline for both parties to reach accommodation. In April this year, exhaustive talks between them were reported, with 80 per cent of the northern party’s members in favour of standing aside to make space for the new southern arrival.
Finally, this week, Fianna Fáil announced it will organise in Northern Ireland, run for office and aim to be ready for the 2019 council elections. It has confirmed talks with the SDLP are continuing and both parties say an announcement will be made in September as to how they will merge, form a partnership or otherwise co-operate.
Throughout this time, spanning two decades, speculation, reporting and discussion on the issue has never stopped, while the phrase “political realignment” has been a constant.
What has changed has been any sense of novelty or drama over what should be a momentous development.
The SDLP-Fianna Fáil merger has become like fusion power: a tiresomely familiar promise to solve all the world’s ills that never seems to get any closer.
Distant and dull
Fianna Fáil injected some excitement back into the idea in 2014 by vowing to head north on its own terms. However, targeting council elections on a five-year timeframe soon made this feel distant and dull. Planning for gradual growth from council level up might have seemed sensible and even respectful of the loyalties of the northern electorate but the frequency of other elections since 2014 – six so far, including the EU referendum – has simply made Fianna Fáil look irrelevant. The party has been laying groundwork and is popular at northern universities but this is largely invisible to the public and has conveyed no sense of momentum.
Meanwhile, the SDLP has become an ever less necessary partner, although the perception of it as in steady decline masks a more complicated story.
Northern Ireland politics is not about conventional policy, nor is it amenable to alignment beyond its jurisdiction
In the first Stormont election after the Belfast Agreement, in 1998, the SDLP was the largest party by vote share.
By the next Stormont election in 2003, it had fallen to fourth place by some margin: this was the shock that put a merger on the table. However, since then the SDLP has held fourth place and declined only a little in vote share – down to 12 per cent, compared to 17 per cent in 2003.
The decline has appeared worse because it has been downhill all the way, accompanied by an inexorable surrender of landmark seats and strongholds, culminating last year in the SDLP losing all three of its MPs under Westminster’s unforgiving first-past-the-post system.
So it would be more accurate to say the SDLP has spent the past 15 years on a gently sloping plateau, knowing from the start it needed to jump off but never plucking up the nerve.
Narrative of decline
Only if and when it jumps will it appreciate the time it has squandered.
In 2011, Gerry Adams quit Westminster to run for the Dáil and Martin McGuinness stood down temporarily from Stormont to run for the Áras – risky moves taken at the first sign of electoral stagnation, which is what is required to maintain the initiative and head off a narrative of decline.
Northern Ireland politics is not about conventional policy, nor is it amenable to alignment beyond its jurisdiction – a disastrous 2010 pact between the UUP and the Conservatives left unionist voters completely unmoved.
All that matters is being the best vehicle for your community’s constitutional aspiration. Decline is generally fatal and that is particularly true of nationalism, which as the smaller community treasures a sense of inevitable growth, and which has a history of replacing its main party overnight once an apparently stronger alternative comes along.
Fianna Fáil might have supplanted Sinn Féin in this manner had it made a fresh, brave move north in its Celtic tiger heyday, and during a moment of weakness for Sinn Féin, such as the IRA scandals of 2005.
Not only has that moment well and truly passed but, as of last year, northern politics has become a contest over which is the largest party overall, with Sinn Féin coming to within a thousand votes of the DUP in the 2017 Stormont election. The intensity of this contest will affect voting at every level, making it difficult for any new player to squeeze on to even the council stage.
Much remains possible with so much in flux, but it is hard to avoid the impression that Fianna Fáil has missed its northern destiny.