Party mergers are not as attractive as they seem

Should the Ulster Unionists finally federate with the Conservatives and the SDLP with Fianna Fail? In each case in their present state of eclipse, the prospect of becoming part of a bigger machine must be sorely tempting. Below the surface however lurk huge problems. Unionists like Sylvia Hermon are sturdy individualists and want to remain big beasts in the local zoo. For the SDLP the attractions may at first glance be clearer, but who’s rushing to vote Fianna Fail these days? The plight of the Dublin government shows how local politicians would be placed at the mercy of events beyond their control. My objections to mergers are two fold. Nationalists looking to Dublin and Unionists to London risk widening the sectarian divide at a time when it desperately needs to be narrowed. And two, it throws into confusion what people are voting for. Was it for this that people bravely carried the torch for local democracy for the past thirty years, only to surrender to an informal form of joint authority between London and Dublin, depending on who’s in power in the national capitals? Only if the London and Dublin parties knocked local heads together would mergers be justfied. But haven’t they tried to do that already? And given the obsessive localism of our politics, wouldn’t the DUP and Sinn Fein look even better for continuing to stand on their own two feet?

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