Fianna Fáil/SDLP merger offers more questions than answers

Posted By: August 29, 2018

Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday,  August 29,  2018

The party’s over

It’s time to call it a day

They’ve burst your pretty balloon

And taken the moon away

It’s time to wind up the masquerade

Just make your mind up the piper must be paid

The party’s over

It’s time to call it a day.

The best version is Nat King Cole’s 1957 rendition if anyone’s thinking of an appropriate song for the SDLP conference this autumn.

The very fact that a Fianna Fáil/SDLP merger is being openly discussed and that no one senior in either party has denied talks are proceeding means the SDLP is a dead duck. The obsequies have begun. They should get on with the burial as soon as possible.

Burial is essential because you can’t have both the SDLP and Fianna Fáil operating in the north. Worse, you can’t have some sort of cockamamie amalgam of two names, two parties, one leader or two leaders and one organisation. It would be like two-thirds of the Blessed Trinity with two persons in one strategy. Remember UNCUNF, the death knell of the UUP in the 2010 Westminster fiasco?

This paso doble has been going on now for a decade, ever since Sinn Féin superseded the SDLP in the Stormont assembly and Martin McGuinness became deputy first minister. Senior Fianna Fáil figures decided Sinn Féin couldn’t be allowed to become the voice of northern nationalism. Since then Fianna Fáil has not had its troubles to seek, principally in the collapse of its vote in 2011. Since then Sinn Féin has become the voice of northern nationalism with 71 per cent of the nationalist vote in last year’s Westminster election. No doubt that has injected a new urgency into Fianna Fáil’s courtship.

Yet, Micheál Martin is a pathological prevaricator. Sources in the Fianna Fáil executive in July said there would be an announcement in September. Now we’re told there won’t be. Doesn’t leave much time to organize for the local government elections in May, does it?

Yet, four years ago Martin said Fianna Fáil would fight them. The question is, who with? Where are the candidates going to come from? The answer is of course the SDLP. It’s not as if there’s an untapped set of scintillating candidates shimmering in the wings ready to spring with a grand jeté onto the northern stage when Fianna Fáil steps into the limelight.

Now, the $64,000 question is, why would people vote for a parade of mediocrity they’ve rejected previously just because they now call themselves Fianna Fáil? If they don’t call themselves Fianna Fáil what else will they call themselves when everyone knows they’re bought and paid for by Fianna Fáil? It’s not easy is it?

There’s more. Suppose they stand in the next British general election which admittedly could be in November or February, but suppose for the sake of argument they stand. Would northern Fianna Fáil promise to take their seats after swearing an oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth? What was de Valera and the civil war about then? In the extremely unlikely event of any of them being elected, that would mean a party in Dublin directing the votes of MPs in Westminster.

Would the northern leader be deputy leader of Fianna Fáil like Michelle O’Neill? That would be news to the current deputy leader Dara Calleary TD. Would there be one national executive? How many northerners would be on it? At least both SDLP and Fianna Fáil are both hopelessly split on abortion reform north and south; they have that much in common. Yet Fianna Fáil’s leadership supports the new legislation planned in the south. Does the SDLP?

Of course, the major risk is that Fianna Fáil moves north and Sinn Féin blatters its recycled SDLP candidates. What does Micheál Martin then say about the north the next time he stands up in the Dáil to attack Mary Lou? You can see why he’s hesitating. On the other hand he’s in a position almost as desperate as the SDLP’s leader. Martin looks as if he’s going to be the first Fianna Fáil leader never to be Taoiseach. With Varadkar soaring in the polls Martin has to do something, and quickly, to redress the balance. But how?