SDLP and Fianna Fáil to continue ‘regular discussions’ amid reports of split

More than 200 SDLP delegates were told by party leader Colum Eastwood that the party needed to move forward by ‘standing on its own two feet’

The SDLP has declined to comment on reports that its three-year partnership with Fianna Fáil is over, insisting the two party leaders “continue to have regular discussions about the future of this island”.

During an extraordinary general meeting last weekend, more than 200 SDLP delegates were told by party leader Colum Eastwood that the party needed to move forward by “standing on its own two feet”.

The meeting was called to discuss the findings of an internal review into the party’s disappointing performance in May’s Assembly elections, when it dropped from being the third largest to fifth largest at Stormont with the loss of four MLA seats, including that of deputy leader Nichola Mallon.

The development was reported in The Belfast Telegraph on Thursday. The Irish Times asked the SDLP to confirm if it has officially ended the partnership after party sources who attended the event said Mr Eastwood wasn’t definitive in his comments.

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A party spokesman did not address the specific query but issued a statement saying: “The SDLP is determined to create a social democratic new Ireland that meets the needs of all the people who share our island. We have worked intensively and constructively with Fianna Fáil over the last number of years to advance that goal, and we are proud to have helped shape the priorities of the Shared Island Unit which is delivering on projects that bring our people closer together.

“Colum Eastwood and Micheál Martin continue to have regular discussions about the future of this island and the challenges we face. That will continue. and we will continue to work closely with our friends in Fianna Fáil and with every party in the democratic tradition on this island that is determined to deliver a new Ireland for everyone.”

Asked about the matter by reporters on Thursday, Mr Martin said he could not confirm any change to the arrangement “and the SDLP certainly are not confirming it to us.

“I spoke with Colum Eastwood this morning, and we will continue to work with the SDLP.”

The Taoiseach said he believed the SDLP would clarify the issue later.

On Monday members of Fianna Fáil travelled to Stormont to take part in a joint photo call with the SDLP as part of a campaign calling for voting rights in the Irish presidential election to be extended to Northern citizens.

Announcing the link-up between the two parties in 2019, Mr Eastwood described it as an “historic moment” and one that marked an “important contribution in finally breaking the cycle of vacuum and division which has failed our people over the last two years”.

Mr Martin said at the time the partnership would be concentrated on developing a “new agenda for Northern Ireland and for Ireland as a whole”.

The SDLP’s Claire Hanna, a former Assembly member before she was elected South Belfast MP in December 2019, was among the party’s most high-profile members to oppose the move and quit her role as Brexit spokesperson in protest. Following her resignation, Ms Hanna said she remained “unconvinced” the merger was “the right vehicle with which to deliver the non-sectarian, transparent and social democratic new Ireland I believe in”.

Concerns were also raised by the chairpersons of the SDLP’s youth, women and LGBTQ wings, who subsequently stepped down.

Despite the dissent a clear majority of 70 per cent of SDLP party members endorsed the plan.

Mr Eastwood has praised the partnership, saying it played a role in the Irish government setting up the multimillion euro Shared Island Unit to boost North-South co-operation.

Earlier this year Fianna Fáil’s youth wing passed a motion at its conference calling for an end to the partnership.

When asked about it in June, Mr Martin insisted the relationship between the two parties was “strong” and would continue.

Fianna Fáil TD Éamon Ó Cuív tweeted on Thursday that the reported split should “open a debate in Fianna Fáil about our future direction towards being a truly all-Ireland party”.

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times