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“What answer from the North?”: Bertie eyes up the SDLP

Read more about: Conferences, Fianna Fail, Irish Politics, Nationalism, Northern Ireland     Print This Post

Fianna Fail today sat down to their “think-in” out in the wilds of Wicklow. Chaired by Dermot Ahern, the gathering is a welcome opportunity for TDs, councillors and MEPs to get their heads around the serious business of governing for the next five years. An Taoiseach was plainly delighted to be sprung from Dublin Castle, doom of many another Irish patriot in days gone by, and he sprang on us a long-awaited surprise announcement: a plan for expansion into the North.

Bertie would not quite be the first Fianna Fail leader to cross the border: Eamon De Valera, in a move little remembered nowadays, secured election as MP for South Down in 1933 while in power in the Free State. “[O]rganising on a 32-county basis”, as Bertie described it, is however a different kettle of fish- one that could cause more problems than opportunities for the party.

The simple electoral arithmetic is one issue. Most votes in Northern Ireland are cast along pure sectarian lines. This will not change in the foreseeable future; the current settlement, welcome though it is in terms of establishing peace, serves to entrench and reward such “Balkanisation” (to borrow Seamus Mallon’s far-sighted phrase). Sinn Fein and the SDLP currently scrabble over a limited nationalist electorate. Insert Fianna Fail into the equation, and you have a recipe for splitting the vote. In the 2005 election, Alasdair McDonnell was able to come through the middle and take the unionist seat of Belfast South for the SDLP. Unionists were horrified, but won’t be complaining if it works in their favour: Jeffery Donaldson has already noted that should Fianna Fail enter the playing field there is a possibility of “unionists making some gains in the parliamentary elections”.

Fianna Fail possess one of the most impressive electoral machines in Europe, and so they’ll realise all this as well. That’s why the merger with the SDLP has consistently reared its head over the past few years; no point going after the same soft-nationalist votes, after all. There may never be a better time to try and swallow Mark Durkan & Co. whole: their party is weak enough to succumb, thinking it their best chance of political survival, while still retaining enough of a network to make it worthwhile for Fianna Fail. Indeed, the SDLP have thus far refused to rule out such a merger, according to the BBC, and some with the party have long urged it.

The challenges would nonetheless be formidable, a fact acknowledged by one FF councillor/blogger in a post last year. For example, Fianna Fail would have to absorb a centre-left bloc of voters and turn them more toward the centre-right. This is because Fianna Fail’s policies here are only intermittently SDLP-compatible, and some level of consistency must be maintained. Besides, if they are to break the Sinn Fein stranglehold on the North they must do so partly through an ideological battle. With the economy roughly two-thirds dependent on the public sector, and SF still very free with the hard-left rhetoric, there must be room for a centrist party with a good record on the economy to attract prosperous, middle class nationalists. This represents the best way forward, but many within the SDLP would probably consider it a betrayal of its core beliefs.

Then there are the challenges of running a single party in two still distinct jurisdictions. Whatever about the attractiveness on paper of a 32-county party, the failure of a Northern-dominated Sinn Fein to get to grips with the mindset of the Republic’s voters cost them dear in the May election. Would a Southern-dominated Social Democratic Soldiers of Destiny (snappy, ain’t it) not face similar problems in reverse? And what if a northerner were to become leader of this party? The Taoiseach of the Republic could in theory be answerable to an MLA, representing a local government constituency within the United Kingdom.

Finally, I’ll just briefly point out that unionists obviously won’t be happy, and that this matters in an artificial set-up like Stormont, where consensus is key. Reg Empey has already registered his disapproval, his key point being that Bertie “has transformed himself from a potential partner in the process of normalisation to a rival”.

FF+SDLP=32? It just doesn’t add up…

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