So tell us, just why does the world need yet another 32-county party… or Fianna Fáil and the North.
So, what to make of the news yesterday about Fianna Fáil exploring the ‘idea of advancing itself as a political party in the North’? Certainly it has considerable support amongst many FF members. But the more one examines the idea the less feasible it becomes.
Firstly, what exactly is the point? Fianna Fáil is a pragmatic organisation. While unity remains part of its agenda one has the sense that the party is comfortable with the outworking of the GFA. So why organise?
Consider the task ahead. It would necessitate the establishment of branches across the North. Sure, there are nascent ones already extant in Derry, and for all I know Belfast. But recent political history provides less comfort than one might expect for the establishment of political parties, either new ones such as the Progressive Democrats who had a considerable first flush of enthusiasm when founded with large (and to those of us on the left troubling) public meetings which as time progressed dampened down to more realistic levels of political activism and support. The quixotic efforts of the NI Conservatives provides an equally dismal example, and the continuing twisting of the British Labour Party around this issue is a salutary lesson for those who would attempt same from south of the Border.
And then consider the issue of what particular niche FF might occupy. Is it to the left or right of the SDLP? Where does it position itself in relation to SF? In merger with either party, and at this point such a merger seems only marginally feasible with the former, what would be the implications for the ‘host’ party? It is not difficult to see some within the SDLP being less than delighted with the prospect of FF establishing a reverse take over for any number of reasons. There is a further problem. Sinn Féin has the enormous advantage of being first mover. It is not merely the dominant force in Republicanism and Nationalism in the North, it also happens to be have the greatest representation and authority within the Executive on behalf of same. That’s no small achievement and if the GFA continues it allows it scope to exercise that authority to its own benefit. Now FF might well attempt to play the ‘internal opposition’ card, but consider the already difficult electoral terrain upon which the GFA is constructed. Each contest assumes a communal hue [CJ on IrishElection goes into some detail on this very point], but particularly those for Westminster. Which of course leads to the next question. Would FF – were it to win a seat at Westminster – take that seat? The SDLP already does, the generally moderate Nationalism which FF might be predicted to target, considering that SF has at this point cornered the ‘Republican’ end of the electoral market. So do we see an abstentionist FF? That’s not going to play terribly well in some quarters. Or don’t we, which won’t play well with others?
Secondly, what might we expect the response to be? In this respect we must consider the response from both the Nationalist community and from Unionism.
For the former the obvious question would be ‘what took you so long?’. And it is a difficult one to answer. Logically the extension of Fianna Fáil northwards was something that should have happened much sooner. While it is true that Unionist parties were autonomous from UK parties, the UUP retained close if somewhat fractious links with the Conservatives. This ‘sponsor’ mode was of enormous benefit to Unionism across the 20th century – indeed one of the more striking aspects of contemporary British Conservatism is how there remain pools of extremely traditional (dare I say reactionary?) sentiment in favour of a muscular Unionism. Yet no such relationship existed this side of the Border with the Nationalist Party. Yet this was so illogical a stance – on the face of it – and so counterproductive in diminishing the authority of Nationalism and Republicanism in the North in the face of Unionist hegemony that at this remove it is hard to understand why it happened. Sure, the idea that Nationalism should speak with one voice in the six counties was presumably part of the reason, and the fear that divisions within the South would simply be replicated in the North further weakening Nationalism no doubt played upon those making the decisions, one also wonders if it was also a legacy of the NP growing largely out of the IPP. The one serious intervention during the late 1940s by the Anti-Partition Campaign was so abysmal that it may well have served to dissuade any further attempts. Yet this lack of contact wasn’t just a philosophical issue. It had serious practical implications, and for evidence of same consider the incredible ignorance of the situation in Belfast and Derry in 1968/9 on the part of avowed Republicans in FF and in the South. In the context of the limited geographic space of this island such ignorance demonstrates the limitations of the rhetoric and reality of unity. Simply put the Southern polity after partition (with the notable exception of Michael Collins) ceded the North to Unionism.
So one might expect that there would be a degree of coolness on the part of Northern Nationalism. But assume for the sake of argument that it works, that FF begins – either through merger or alliance with the SDLP, or alternatively on its own – to attract significant support. The obvious problem after that is just how to retain the support. If FF is organising then it must, logically, organise with unity as an aspect of its programme. This incidentally is a problem shared by SF and the SDLP as well but to a less pointed degree because they after all are not part of the governing party in the South. Expectations would be raised that FF could make significant progress. But in the context of a GFA which resides as much on communal calculation as on persuasion of Unionism is that progress possible in the short or even medium term? I don’t think so. And I also suspect that a dynamic which reared itself unpleasantly during the last election, this idea of SF in the Republic being ‘controlled’ from the North might operate to an even greater degree. Sure, that might make some of its potential base happy, but it might well be pure poison as regards Unionism.
Because the response of Unionism to this development would be quite interesting. A strengthening FF might convey a very different threat to that of SF and whether the reality matched the projection it is only fair to say that Unionism is rather skilled in projecting the worst. Photo-ops at the Boyne are one thing. Seeing a brace of Assembly seats fall to FF, perhaps even an FF Minister in the Executive would be quite another. And there is naturally one place Unionism might go. An identification with British parties – to a much greater degree – would be the rational upshot of this. Now, basic power politics suggests that no British party will act against its own interests, which is why the Unionists have broadly been continually disappointed since 1973 or so. But that doesn’t mean that such alliances might not have a pernicious dynamic of their own in a context where the GFA looked to be somewhat shaky. And one point about the GFA is that it depends in large measure upon the benign oversight of London. I can’t see that changing today, or tomorrow, but five years down the line? Ten? [incidentally that is an argument for a much more free standing revision of the GFA/BA in order to prevent precisely that sort of occurrence]
Which in a way demonstrates that the simple act of Fianna Fáil ‘advancing itself as a political party in the North’ is fraught with contradictions, few enough of its own making. Having said all that I’d actually be in favour of a low-key presence with a view to the party developing further as time progresses.
So, what’s going to happen. I don’t know, and as the old saying goes I’m willing to bet neither do you or anyone else. There was a certain ambiguity about the statement by the SDLP which went:
The SDLP has previously ruled out a merger but last night the party responded to reports of the reopening of the debate saying: “The SDLP has always taken the view that once the institutions of the Good Friday agreement were up and running again, there would be a potential for political realignment within the North and between North and South.
How very interesting. Even more so the benign response from Mark Durkan.
As a true republican party, we believe that the social and economic interests of the people of the entire island are best served by ever-deepening cooperation between North and South.
We all need to approach these issues with the aim of maximising the opportunities of the new political alignments for the people of Ireland and not just increasing the number of parties contesting elections in the North…
It’s hardly news that the SDLP faces problems. In some respects despite the energy of the Hume and others it inherited the tendency to fiefdoms that the Nationalist Party had. Contrast with the still impressive discipline of SF and add in an aging party profile, and the future, while not bleak, looks uncertain. Political formations do strange things in times of stress. Sometimes they will act entirely contrary to their own best interests. The problem here being just how to determine the best interests of the SDLP.
The response from Unionism – what response so far (bar a few mutterings from Reg Empey)? – is interesting in itself. In the context of the GFA I find it hard to believe that FF would not have flagged this development up for the DUP, even in an informal fashion. That the UUP is outside the tent on this one is revealing. And I suspect it might have been an easy sell to the DUP. But let’s see if and how that response develops.
Still, it might be worth pointing to some useful outcomes for those of us who are keen to see the ever more complex web of relationships on this island (and indeed the one to the East) develop in a way which tilts to some forms of unity while retaining sociopolitical links for Unionism with what remains of the UK. The establishment of an overt FF presence would be a positive development if it led to some form of clear representation within the Dáil or Senate – or indeed within the broader RoI polity. It might have potential if it were a means of underpinning a peaceful transitional period across the next decade or so. It could act (in tandem with SF) as a means of underwriting the rights of Nationalism and Republicanism in a very real form above and beyond the GFA. But this will demand serious management of expectations on the part of those who would lend it support within the six counties. I’ve noted this on P.ie, but one could envisage a situation where FF began to develop significant support and representation leading to pressure from that base to push further. A sort of ‘are we there yet, are we there yet?’ dynamic could evolve where FF was continually forced to meet the expectations of those for whom it would represent the fastest possible route to unity.
Now that, in the words of one B. Ahern, would be a challenge.