Ireland’s parties in a Brexit scramble

Posted By: January 06, 2017

Denis Bradley. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, January 6, 2016

Even the blackest darkness can be penetrated by the human eye. With time and focus, there is always enough light to the eye to reveal the initially veiled reality. Holding on to that truth may be the most optimistic option in a world of political uncertainty.

But we can, for the time being, leave the world to others. We have enough on our plate with Brexit and a wobbly executive that has to find a path through the warm embers of the RHI. We might even stumble into an election.

The RHI will take the focus and the energy, for a time. But that will pass. Politics is good at squaring circles but, as of now, there is no visible circle or square within the Brexit dynamic that is not revolutionary and transformative.

It would be fair to predict that in this darkness, Unionism will do what it mostly does when it feels under pressure. It will go into a defensive formation, leave the greater part of the pitch for others to play on – ‘what we have we hold’ tactics. The only time in modern history that Unionism was forced out of defense was when it discovered that its own British government was already in negotiations with Republicans and Nationalists, leaving it with no option.

The more intriguing questions will be about nationalism’s response. In finding a coherent response to the future of this island Vis, a vis Europe, each of the nationalist parties will have to go through rigorous self-examination. It has already begun with a Fine Gael government admitting that Brexit has forced it to ‘up its game’ on The North and embrace Irish unity as a serious option.

Fianna Fáil is preparing again for government and has publicly declared that it will organize in The North in 2019. Whether it does that on its own or in some relationship with the SDLP remains a moot issue. That date, however, is far off and has the feel of a guest arriving at a party when everyone else is about to go home. The pace of the game has dramatically changed, and Fianna Fáil will not want to see itself as a late comer and their natural constituency in the north will not thank them for hanging back.

Which leaves the two northern parties. Sinn Féin has the advantage of being an all-Ireland party, and that strength will keep them ‘in the room’ where the policies are being partially decided. Being all-Ireland is in itself a definition and even an ill-prepared definition brings a modicum of light into the darkness. Their weakness is that their percentage of the electoral ballot has peaked both North and South. With the inevitable demise of the McGuinness leadership in The North and the presence of Fianna Fáil, if it happens, the plateau on which they currently find themselves is more likely to descend rather than ascend. But even in a more weakened state, they will be players.

Which leaves only the SDLP. They are the party most likely to be sidelined in the coming years. The irony and the pathos would be that the most pro-European party, the party of John Hume, who used Europe as the peace model, a party that has recently found new energy and new faces, could be extraneous to these negotiations. That is likely to happen unless they find a new reason for their existence. They have asked themselves that question before, but they have never answered it satisfactorily. Having been central to the achievement of peace and the establishment of political institutions in  The North, what is their current political purpose? Brexit raises the need for a clear answer to that question to a new level.

In a debate about the future of the whole island, their relevance and their presence is restricted to one corner of the island, while every other nationalist party has a presence in all parts. It doesn’t take a political genius to foresee that any suggestion of a moderate to hard Brexit that has overtones of borders on this island will drive northern nationalists to the bosom of parties that have an all-Ireland base. That is the nature of constitutional politics.

Some within and without the party say that a movement to an all-Ireland status might result in a split. That might be true but what else might be true is there is now only a choice between a split and a slow death.