Fianna Fáil and its role in the North.

Eoin Neylon is the President of Ógra Fianna Fáil and a former member of the Willie Drennan Cumann of Queens University, Belfast

Today is society’s day in Queen’s University Belfast. Not a day that marks a highlight in most people’s political calendars but of great significance this year in particular to Ógra Fianna Fáil. We first set up stall and started recruiting members in that university in 2007, just 9 years after the Good Friday Agreement.

It’s a testament to the new found peace in the north that we were able to stand beside all the long established parties speak to students about northern politics in an open manner. The shear thought of doing so only a short few years earlier would have seemed a pipe dream to most.

They were exciting times and an event I was delighted to play a part in personally. Fast forward 8 years and Fianna Fáil has followed where Ógra first laid the ground work. There have been fora set up in the different counties and recruitment in other 3rd level campuses since.

At the Ard Fheis this year in the Royal Dublin Society in Ballsbridge, Fianna Fáil elected its first ever direct representative for Northern Ireland to the party’s National Executive, one Briege Mac Oscar from Tyrone. The development of Fianna Fáil in the north has been a dumpy ride however; this has made it all the more determined.

The electoral meltdown in the Republic of Fianna Fáil in 2011 halted progress in developing our structures in the north. Those were worrying times for the party where political commentators openly opined whether there was any future for the once great monolith of Irish politics. What transpired in the following years was a re-think as to how the party works for the 21st century and how we face the challenges that now face Ireland, north and south.

The move to a “One Member, One Vote” (OMOV) system has re-invigorated the party and handed so much power back to the members. This is true of Northern Fianna Fáil too. As we look forward as to where our party is going in the future, party leader Míchéal Martin TD has committed Fianna Fáil to contesting elections in the six counties by 2019.

To some that seems a lofty goal but having been active in Fianna Fáil in the north, I have seen the many talented men and women from all walks of life that have come forward and said that they would love to work on behalf of a new progressive party in the north that was capable of leaving the old politics of division behind.

As students talk with recruiters today, they will be told just as to how Fianna Fáil sees the current political impasse in the north as a symptom of a political culture that has been let develop that still pits communities against each other. We have always stood for real Republicanism; an ideology that respects differences and promotes inclusion; that listens to all sides of a debate before jumping to a conclusion.

If politics in Northern Ireland is to become normalised as it is across Europe, then that can only be on a platform of mutual respect and understanding. The governing coalition in the north’s institutions however is based on mistrust and ‘one-upmanship’ far too often. This is where a new political force can do so much good in bringing communities together for the overall economic and social benefit of society.

Northern Ireland has gone through radical change in the course of my life time. The past 3 decades have seen it come from a veritable civil war right through to an emerging economic gold mine, showcased to the world in film and TV, no less than through the ‘Game of Thrones’ series.

If this potential is to be grasped and allowed develop then it needs politics to stop getting in its way. This year’s Fianna Fáil National Youth Conference, the pinnacle of the Ógra calendar, is historic in two senses. Firstly we celebrate 40 years in existence, the oldest of all party youth wings on the island.

Secondly, it will be the first time that this event takes place in the north. November 13th and 14th will see young progressive people from all over the island decent on the Canal Court Hotel in Newry to discuss just where Ireland is going as a modern country; just how our island can work as one to promote ourselves to the world; and just how a potential ‘Brexit’ might affect those things.

If you want to be part of such discussions visit our

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  • Robin Keogh

    Thanks Eoin for that informative piece. After some years of speculation your artice suggests that plans for FF are noving along steadily which I hope will be welcomed by all those who believe in offering as wide a choice as possible to the six county electorate and may hopefully inspire a return to the ballot box by many people who have fallen away over the last number of years.

    While it is good to see the bones of a plan I hope you will not mind if i suggest that there seems to be little meat on those bones judging by your article. Could you maybe update us on FF intentions regarding Assembly designation, westminster intentions, and if policy will reflect a national platform or will it be sculpted around the six county’s subservience to Westminister?

  • Nevin

    “Willie Drennan Cumann of Queens University, Belfast”

    William Drennan?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Fianna Fail had one Stormont seat held by De Valera himself, the policy of simply ignoring Westminster and being abstentionist didn’t change anything. There was also the case of Gerry McHugh who defected from Sinn Féin and became an independent nationalist while being a Fianna Fáil member. He did not recontest his seat in the Assembly but he did at council level and lost.

    Modern Fianna Fáil (like the modern Sinn Féin and SDLP) are a Irish nationalist gradualism party rather than Irish nationalist immediateness and that means building the case for Irish unity around pragmatic and practical time based goals, rather than the desire for immediate results.

  • Ernekid

    Throughout the party’s history Fianna Fáil has only cared about the North when it suits them. Since the days of Dev. They’ve used republican rhetoric as an electoral crutch in order to out manoeuvre their rivals. The North only factors into Fianna Fails calculations when its to their advantage otherwise they’ll can safely and cynically ignore it.

    Now they are being out manoeuvred by the Shinners on the Republican front and they’ve lost their purpose since 2011 they are cynically looking North once again.

    If the gombeens of Fianna Fáil come North the first question that has to be asked is ‘where have you been all our lives?’

  • Gingray

    It is a different place tho, I share your skeptisism over their intentions but if they did come North it could be a game changer in terms of nationalist engagement. The current parties are stagnating and offering little in the way of fresh ideas. Or it could be the same as the Tories in Northern Ireland, no impact whatsoever.

  • LiamÓhÉ

    After a look through the manifestos of other parties, Fine Gael and Labour seem to have no clear vision for unification, although the youth wings may occasionally stumble onto the topic. The SDLP still has its vision of an equality-based united Ireland, but has lost its ground to the only operational 32 county party, Sinn Féin, and seems no longer to have a clear purpose post-GFA.

    Fianna Fáil is now coming back to the agenda set out pre-2008, but for many this party is tainted by economic mismanagement, populism and its gaimbíní. As it stands, they are at least two elections away from running serious candidates in the six counties, so why the slow pace?

    I would prefer that the SDLP be replenished with 32-county blood and go south and compete with Sinn Féin as a full-fledged all-Ireland party (it was always Ulster that wagged the dog). Yet we are missing the will power or even the intimate knowledge of politics in the North from Labour (Rep.) or Fine Gael to consider merging. That leaves only Fianna Fáil. If they really are a, ahem, socialist party, why not reforge yourselves post-melt down as a social democratic centre-left party together with the SDLP?

  • willie drennan

    Good to know that I have a Cumann called after me at Queens and I’m not even dead yet.

  • gendjinn

    There is truth in your words, but not the complete truth as evidenced by the work of Reynolds & Ahern in the peace process.

    Until Clinton was in the White House and Foggy Bottom was largely cleared of it’s anglophiles, Ireland had very few friends when it came to the North.

  • Zig70

    SDLP haven’t the money to go down South and FF are centre right not socialist

  • Zig70

    FF are going to get hammered first time out no matter what they do. It would be better for them to get the beating out of the way quickly rather than dipping toes and talking in political fairy stories.

  • Robin Keogh

    I dont agree. I think that if FF can muster a machine similar to what they have traditionally had they could take 4 or five percent of the overall vote. There could be a lot of tired nationalists out there waiting for a party to vote for.

  • Ernekid

    They need candidates, a platform and policy for the North they are lacking all those things now.

  • mjh

    I’m not at all sure Zig.

    IF, and I stress IF, current trends continue September 2016 could be the perfect time to formally launch FF in the north.

    We have already had 3 elections (Euro, LG and Westminster) in the current 5 year cycle from Euro to Euro. If the Assembly elections follow the same pattern, and they usually do, after May we could be looking at:

    1) The lowest total nationalist share in 20 years – a full 3 or 4 percentage points below its peak 15 years ago.

    2) The first drop in SF share for 25 years – which could be a psychologically important moment.

    3) The SDLP down by a further 1.5 points – and quite possible below the 13.0% they gained in the 2014 Euro, which was itself their lowest vote share ever.

    4) Maybe even nationalist net seat losses.

    For a potential new nationalist competitor that would be about as good a background as it could get.

    After those sort of results we could expect much nationalist soul searching, encouraged by FF further stoking speculation about their entry in order to ramp up interest before a formal launch.

    I very much doubt that they would be able to muster the same sort of machine in the north as they have in the south, Robin. That would need time and would be dependent on considerable electoral success.

    But do expect a high degree of professionalism. Before they launch they will have researched the categories of voters to whom they are most likely to appeal and identified the core messages which will enthuse them; they will have their outline policy platform in place; they will have identified their target geographical areas where they will concentrate resources; and they will have already been talking to potential recruits – particularly in the SDLP (and especially amongst those of their 66 councillors who face the prospect of losing their seats in 2019) so expect a trickle of publicity generating early defections.

    Even 4% of the total vote, if not spread too thinly, could give them a viable number of councillors in 2019: while 5% or 6% would place them as realistic challengers for a number of Assembly seats.

    What happens then who can say.

    Of course a bad Dail election could put a stop to all of that.

  • Nordie Northsider

    “The electoral meltdown in the Republic of Fianna Fáil in 2011 halted progress in developing our structures in the north.” But didn’t Bertie declare the move North as far back as 2007? You’d need to get a move on before coastal erosion makes it all academic.

  • LiamÓhÉ
  • MainlandUlsterman

    Who do we think they’ll take votes from? And where will it leave SDLP and SF?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    if they still think of it as “the North” – i.e. in purely Irish terms – I do wonder what contribution they’re really going to be able to make to 21st Century Northern Ireland that is overwhelmingly content to be in the UK.

  • mjh

    Where will they take votes from?

    As with any new party, for example NI21, there will probably be a lot of talk about energising large numbers of non-voters and bringing those who are disillusioned back to the polling booths.

    In fact, as with NI21, the vast majority of the votes they gain will be from voters who would otherwise have voted for other parties. And in the case of FF that means SF and the SDLP.

    However there is no evidence that I know of which would help us to guess in what proportions or in what quantities.

    Certainly in the last few years the SDLP has shown itself quite capable of losing large numbers of votes without the assistance of FF. But that does not necessarily mean that it would provide easier pickings for FF than would SF. Maybe the SDLP is already near rock bottom and most of its current voters will stick with it? Maybe FF would prove attractive to a proportion of SF voters who would appreciate a republican alternative without the baggage, or who have voted for SF because they no longer viewed the SDLP as a sufficiently credible option? Or maybe not.

    Provided it picks up enough first preference votes to get into the later stages of election counts, FF could turn out to be the preferred second choice for both SF and SDLP voters. Both parties voters are particularly reluctant to transfer to the other. The evidence suggest that when their own party is elected or eliminated only about half of SF voters will transfer to an available SDLP candidate, while only a third of SDLP voters will return the favour.

    Where does that leave the SDLP and SF?

    Short term SF could weather the lose of 2 or 3 percentage points from their current 25% with little real damage – indeed a good result in the Dail elections would more than make up for it. In addition SF is more likely to have prepared for the eventuality and to maintain party discipline in the face of it.

    The SDLP however would be gravely wounded by a lose of that size, especially if FF win sufficient seats and votes to look like real challengers at the following Assembly elections. The party would almost certainly be seriously demoralised and we could anticipate more internal dissension and a real danger of defections if FF look like establishing themselves as a long-term contender.

    In the longer term FF could aspire to challenge SF’s dominance in northern nationalism, based on the normal ebb and flow of political support.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Very interesting and all sounds quite plausible that the SDLP would be the ones facing an existential crisis here.

  • Ernekid

    What you did there MU is take your own personal opinion and extrapolate it to the entirety of NI. To say that Northern Ireland is overwhelming content to remain in the UK is balderdash

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’d say 65 per cent vs 17 per cent was pretty overwhelming:

  • Ernekid

    That survey data can be easily discredited as its in response to an entirely hypothetical ‘if there was a referendum tomorrow’ question.
    As there would never be a snap referendum on Irish unity,That data is useless as it doesn’t establish the terms or nature of Irish unity. As with the Scottish Indyref there would be a period of negotiations preceding any referendum that would established what exactly people would be voting for. The idea of people having to decide the constitutional future of the North overnight is nonsense. Unification will be a gradual process that will take years if not decades as the British draw down their presence in Ireland

  • MainlandUlsterman

    What, are Northern Irish people leaving?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    dream on