The SDLP must go it alone without big brother

Only a year ago, it seemed a merger/takeover was on the brink. Now Brian Cowen has hammered in the last nail on the coffin of any Fianna Fail-SDLP merger or a go – it -alone in the North. Although many SDLP members might not think so with all the party’s dithering on the issue, this is good news for politics. It forces attention where it matters more than ever, the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. A Fianna Fail North has nothing to offer Fianna Fail. It would further seriously unsettle political behaviour in the Assembly and entrench the “national question” at the heart of an Assembly system designed to move it to the edges. The clincher has to be that it’s clearly impossible for Fianna Fail the natural party of government in the Republic, to be at one and the same time one of two referees of the Northern Ireland political system as well as one of the lesser players inside it. The same goes for a Conservative government in London. The only thing that would revive the idea would be a full merger between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives. Mergers with metropolitan parties in London or Dublin are the product of wishful thinking, the dream of achieving the nirvanas of a secure Union or Irish unity by the back door – and in the short term dishing the Shinners or the DUP. All they’ve achieved so far is to cause left-right splits within parties that are still essentially communalist i.e. tribally-based. and if they have any sense, the metropolitan parties will avoid getting dragged into the mire. A Fianna Fail north would not necessarily win all battles against Sinn Fein in the north. That exposure could only boost Sinn Fein in the south. Both national parties have a far stronger interest in keeping the British-Irish relationship sweet and developing variable geometry for the region.

The SDLP should stop looking over its shoulder for the magic bullet. In the 108 seat STV system there’s room for two parties on either side. The desire to become proxies on each side of the unity question is an insult to the people who elected them and yet another distraction from the hard graft of making Stormont work. Their best hope is to concentrate on the people’s issues and co-operate across the divide.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London