Lengthy SDLP/Fianna Fáil courtship turning serious

Posted By: January 14, 2019

Colum Eastwood and Micheál Martin are forging greater co-operation between their parties

Deaglán de Bréadún. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, January 14, 2019 

Lengthy courtships are mostly a thing of the past. Time was when a couple might be “doing a line” for years on end before they tied the knot.

It was virtually unknown for such a pair to “shack up” without a formal wedding ceremony because that would be regarded as “living in sin” by their horrified relatives and neighbors.

There was even an anecdote going around, presumably fictional, about a couple – let’s call them Joe and Mary – who were “walking out” together, literally for decades. One day, Joe turns to Mary and says: “Do you think, Mary, is it time we got married?” Mary pauses for a moment before replying: “I don’t know, Joe, is there anyone out there that would have either one of us at this stage?”

That particular yarn was brought to mind by the news that the SDLP and Fianna Fáil might, at last, be taking serious steps in the direction of a merger or at least some form of very close relationship. It’s an idea that’s been knocking around for a long time, but few people took it very seriously until now.

There are different schools of thought as to whether it’s a good move or not. The founders of the SDLP back in August 1970 were a distinguished group that included the likes of Gerry Fitt, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, and Bríd Rodgers among others. A talented line-up indeed and there are some very capable individuals in the party today under the leadership of Colum Eastwood. But the SDLP is at a low ebb, and some creative thinking is needed. Tying-up with Micheál Martin and his friends could give it a strong 32-county dimension and add a deeper shade of green to its public image.

Fianna Fáil, for its part, was founded back in March 1926 and has been in government in Dublin for 61 of the last 93 years. But the party hit rock-bottom in the 2011 general election when it came back with only 20 deputies out of a total Dáil membership of 166. This compared with 77 in the previous contest four years earlier and reflected voter dissatisfaction with the party’s handling of the banking crisis at the time. The Fianna Fáil cohort increased to 44 TDs at the next visit to the ballot box in 2016, but it still remains in opposition, while providing conditional support to the Fine Gael-led minority government.

The truth is that neither the SDLP or Fianna Fáil is in a great place. The question – or at least one of the questions – is whether something akin to a marriage will work to their mutual advantage or just one of them; or will it damage both?

Whatever the final effect on the two sides, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some sort of amalgamation was unavoidable. For a variety of reasons, a 32-county Irish state is a rather more likely prospect than it was even five years ago. Population trends and Brexit are among the reasons a United Ireland is now a serious proposition – although the road towards that destination will be full of twists and turns. But nationalist parties on either side of the border need to have an all-Ireland base to be taken seriously.

The rise of Sinn Féin since the IRA ceasefire of 1994 has changed Irish politics on both sides of the border. We have a situation in The North where SF has seven Westminster MPs and the SDLP none at all. In the south, Mary Lou McDonald leads the third-largest party in the Dáil: Sinn Féin has virtually eclipsed the Irish Labour Party and poses a serious threat to Fianna Fáil. It seems that only another 32-county party can compete with Sinn Féin for support from the greener elements of the electorate in both parts of the island.

Somewhat ironically, one is reminded of “TINA,” a shortened version of “There Is No Alternative,” the slogan used by Maggie Thatcher to promote free-market capitalism. At the end of the day it is hard to see either the SDLP or FF actually losing seats because of their amalgamation but whether they will make substantial gains, as a result, is more problematic.

The Foyle constituency looks like the most promising battleground since Mark Durkan lost out by only 169 votes to Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion in the 2017 election. Having even one MP at Westminster in the current climate would be a great boon to an Irish nationalist party. That’s assuming Fianna Fáil could accept the need to take the oath to the British monarch – although they did it before at Leinster House in 1927. Then there is the name of the new combination: can they devise something that would contain elements of both titles? Comments on email, please!