Time for Fianna Fáil to Stake a Claim in the Fourth Green Field

With the SDLP losing its three Westminster seats in the election, it would seem the time is ripe for Fianna Fáil to stake an electoral claim in the north.
The party has already announced its intentions to field candidates in local government elections in the north in 2019 but it has no clear path to making that happen, no party structure and no real membership. It may just be that the SDLP is the platform that they need to take forward their plans.

The SDLP has been in electoral decline over the last number of years. It held its vote share and its number of seats in the Assembly elections in March, but that was an exception rather than the rule. Whilst Colum Eastwood was under no illusion regarding the challenges the party would face in this election, he certainly did not foresee losing all three of their Westminster seats.

All three of those former MPs were also former leaders of the party. Some were more effective and more popular with the party faithful than others.

Mark Durkan, the unseated MP for the Foyle constituency, had lead the SDLP from 2001 until 2010 and stepped down as party leader because he said he did not think he should sit in the Assembly as well as at Westminster and felt the party leader should be a member of the SDLP’s Assembly team. Inexplicably, both Margaret Ritchie, his immediate successor and Alasdair McDonnell who came after her both felt that an Irish nationalist party could be lead from Westminster.

The results of the election amount to a bit of enforced housekeeping for the SDLP. The generation of John Hume is no longer at the helm of the party. Its two probably least charismatic figures, McDonnell and Ritchie, are gone.

Durkan is a horse of a different colour though. During the Article 50 debate in Westminster, it was he who secured an acceptance from the Tories that the north would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a successful border poll – a month before Enda Kenny got the same commitment from the EU 27.

Despite the loss of his seat, he has a significant amount of personal respect even from his political rivals. And he will always be the man that John Hume groomed and anointed as his successor.

 

Fianna Fáil could do worse than look to Durkan as its leader in the north. For Colum Eastwood, that might just be the lifebelt he needs to rescue the party before any further decline. It would allow him to focus on Stormont, on cultivating new talent in a way that Sinn Féin have so successfully done and on repairing a wounded party.

Importantly, it would give Fianna Fáil a foundation on which to build its base in the north in advance of a border poll. Let’s face it, most politicians on the island of Ireland believe that poll is coming – they only differ on when and what exactly it will look like.

But what about the fact that the Labour Party is a sister party of the SDLP? Maybe in the 1980s, but the Labour Party of today bears little resemblance to the party of that time.

There will be those who will say the SDLP is a busted flush and Fianna Fáil wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them. I say Skoda.

Twenty years ago, if you bought a Skoda you would have been laughed at by your family and friends. But the brand was there, the framework already in place and Volkswagen put in the investment and time to build it in its own image. Skoda went from being a joke of a car to being the car most likely to be used as a taxi because of its reliability and efficiency. Like Skoda, the SDLP might be in trouble, but it’s still a recognised brand.

The campaign for the local government elections will commence in just over a year’s time.

Gentlemen, start your engines…

  • mickfealty

    Until the SDLP figure how it lost its most senior and able parliamentarian to an complete ingenue, FF should stay where it is. If NI is such a place that not having a voice is seen as a good I can’t see why they would want to play here.

  • Think you are correct Patrica.

    A 6 county party just doesn’t have room to maneuver with Brexit and it will require and All-island approach.

    And SDLP-FF Alliance/Merger etc would provide that, and immediately SF would be on the back foot. Such a merger would grant FF several MLAs (Not all SDLP MLAs would go but 90% would) as well as a host of Cllrs. SDLP have young councilors in South Down, Mid-Ulster, N/A all of which would set things in motion for an All-Ireland strategy and a very strong backbone to build for the future.

  • DP Moran

    If Fianna Fáil do come North then hopefully they do so as a socially conservative nationalist party which is pro life, drawn from rural areas and has new leadership rather than follow in the footsteps of the SDLP and become social democrat Sinn Fein lite.

  • Brian Walker

    Is this a private discussion limited to Irish nationalism or can anybody join in? Does it begin to appreciate the huge complexities before you get anywhere near a numbers game?

  • Smithborough

    The eclipse of the SDLP seems to be a big cause of loss of interest in NI by southern parties, why give support to your political opponents after all? Northern nationalist all Ireland politicking ticks the right ideological boxes but probably diminishes nationalist influence by making it a southern party political matter. It’s a bit like unionist unity – a solution regularly trotted out but unlikely to deliver anything it promises.

  • Obelisk

    I think the starting point of any discussion on this matter has to accept one reality.

    The SDLP is a dead end and has no chance of recovering against the Sinn Fein machine unless the Republican movement loses it’s marbles and returns to violence. Given the dividends purely peaceful means has yielded to Sinn Fein in terms of power and authority in both parts of the island, that is not going to happen.

    This leaves Nationalism in the north with two possibles routes in the future. Either we all consolidate behind Sinn Fein or we try something different. Note that I didn’t say we try something new. Something new would be throttled by Sinn Fein at birth, as PBP have found to their cost.

    I believe Nationalism needs an alternative politically to Sinn Fein. Dominance will breed complacency, as we saw in the last few assembly terms, till the threat of PBP and voter apathy motivated Sinn Fein into action. Sinn Fein needs a hungry, aggressive competitor for Nationalist votes.

    I believe that alternative is Fianna Fail. But a Fianna Fail that arrived in the north by itself and attempted to recruit it’s own people and set up it’s own structures would probably end up like the Northern Ireland Tories, pitifully small and irrelevant. Not only that, the group Fianna Fail would need to target to facilitate it’s entry into northern politics are those ninety five thousand Nationalists who still, under the present circumstances, will not vote Sinn Fein. If the SDLP persists in existing, it will simply squat on that voting base, unable to grow but unable to die, and Fianna Fail will be stymied before it even begins. Here, the SDLP would be a floppy punching bag for Sinn Fein come every election, a token opposition to be steamrollered without mercy.

    For Fianna Fail to stand a chance, what remains of the SDLP must surrender to it and be absorbed by it. The very name of the SDLP should pass into legacy, and everything should be rebranded Fianna Fail. This would have to be a total union, not the halfway house the Ulster Unionists tried with the Tories.

    For the membership of the SDLP to have a real chance at meaningfully shaping our future, they have to let go of their past.

  • Brian O’Neill

    As I understand it the divide in the SDLP has always been between the urban crowd who are more Labour and the rural crowd who are more FF.

    I know in Belfast there is very little demand for FF. Maybe if Labour also setup in NI, that would keep both camps happy?

    The problem the SDLP has is they achieved their civil rights goals. They now need to reboot and find a new strategy. They have some extremely capable people but they are burdened down by their history.

    Their natural supporters lead largely comfortable lives with good jobs. They last thing they want to do is traipse round the doors in the rain harassing potential voters who are trying to eat their dinner in peace.

    Sinn Fein have that whole movement thing going on. Its like a religion, their supporters feel they are part of something bigger. A bearded messiah leading them to the promised land of an all Ireland. As a pragmatic sort it completely baffles me but you can’t knock their results.

    The Sinn Fein canvasing machine were they swamp an area with dozens of people is an impressive operation. The SDLP can never compete with that.

    This post is well worth a read. It explains torrent, the Sinn Fein election canvass model: https://vixenswithconvictions.com/2014/05/27/part-one-how-to-get-your-vote-out/

  • JOHN TURLEY

    Gerry Adams Has invited the main parties in South to contest seats in the North several times.They have
    not taken up the invitation. then maybe carrying out the wishes of the electorate would be new to them.

  • Mark Petticrew

    Nichola Mallon made some interesting comments today on Talkback when quizzed about an SDLP merger with Fianna Fáil, saying that the “dynamic of politics has changed on this island” and that “we need to look at all possibilities”. The impactful shock of the SDLP losing all of its MPs could stoke movement on this sooner rather than later, and the coming together of the two parties would fit rather nicely with Fianna Fáil’s previously stated intention to participate in the 2019 council elections here.

    In the event of such a merger, I’d be curious to see how many Sylvia Hermons within the SDLP would emerge in opposition to being subsumed into the Fianna Fáil tent, just as she was to the Tory arrangement with the UUP in 2010.

  • Obelisk

    None. The only reason Sylvia Hermon mattered was that she was a sitting MP with a large personal vote that enabled her, to this day, to hold the seat. She had something she could hold over the leadership’s head, and she acted on it.

    The SDLP no longer has any MPs. There is no one of any stature with an appropriate platform to play a Sylvia Hermon. All they could do is storm out of the tent and sulk in retirement.

  • John Stafford

    Thats Fine Gael

  • 1729torus

    FF can pursue the same strategy of slow, steady, and sustainable growth that SF used in RoI. They’re already committed to running for local elections in 2019 as it is.

    NI Conservatives were happily gradually growing until everything blew up since the Brexit vote. FF would be tough and cunning enough to avoid getting squeezed in an SF-DUP spat.

    I personally expect the SDLP to act so arrogant and entitled that FF will be compelled to go it alone and compete with them. It will only be after that FF demonstrate that they are able to do it on their own that the SDLP might stop acting like Prima Donnas.

  • hugh mccloy

    FF dont need the SDLP they are a strong enough party to tackle NI on its own. It needs to link up with community workers and groups, they are big and bad enough to go toe to toe with SF and their first election here will be a fight with SF

  • tmitch57

    In the 1980s when Garret FitzGerald was taoiseach, the SDLP leadership was split between FF and FG with Hume favoring the latter and his deputy Mallon favoring the former. I don’t know if there is still support for today’s FG among SDLP members. I doubt that Labour, which is barely hanging on in the Republic, has the resources to devote to being competitive in the North. Labour candidates would probably only be competitive in the greater Belfast area, where they would compete with Sinn Fein, FF, and Alliance.

  • Gopher

    FF will offer the same as SF and the SDLP offered, a 32 county republic with some flowery nonsense about accomadating unionists. The SDLP went further green than SF and still lost, FF will be no different. The only free ground in Northern Ireland politics with room for expansion is the centre and that means giving up on the 32 county republic in the short, medium and possibly forever term.

  • Obelisk

    I can’t recall any real breakthrough made by the Tories here. I could be mistaken in that of course. Surely Fianna Fail faces a similar fate as long as the SDLP’s remnants squat on the electoral landscape?

  • SDLP supporter

    Patricia’s assessment of the work of Mark Durkan is well-deserved and generous.

  • BERZERKERMG

    SF didn’t use a strategy of slow, steady and sustainable growth though. Their number of seats declined in the Republic from 2002 to 2007. Their surge in 2011 was as a result of the 2008 crash and was completely outside their control. Without the upheaval in southern politics they would still be marginal. The narrative of SF’s inexorable rise in the south is as revisionist as their heroic armed struggle narrative and creates a false allure of manifest destiny about them. They lucked out.

    The NI political system seems much more straitjacketed and predictable than the ROI’s and I’m not sure how appealing it is to FF. The scope for votes is limited to what the SDLP currently holds and winning some SF votes, and the amount of power available is very circumscribed.

    FF refused to share power with FG at the last election, a party who they are a mirror image of in many ways, over a lingering tribalism from the 1920s. Bearing that in mind I’m not sure what sort of mental gymnastics they’d have to do to volunteer for compulsory powersharing with the DUP ad infinitum.

    It’s obvious they would never contest Westminster elections. I don’t see how appealing the Assembly is for them either. Being seen to go begging to the Secretary of State every time the Assembly crashes would not sit with the party faithful. Being seen to be administering the Queen’s territory would be tantamount to blasphemy. Ultimately participating in the Northern parliament is being subservient to the British government and that is abhorrent to FF.

    I can’t see them ever doing it frankly. FF will try to gain a foothold in the north through a pact with SDLP I think.

  • DP Moran

    Fine Gael is a right wing party when it comes to economics but not on social issues. Fianna Fáil has taken a more centre left view on economics in recent years but still retains a provincial socially conservative moral viewpoint.

  • 1729torus

    FF said they’d run, so I assume they will. Presumably they want to influence politics here.There always would have been an economic downturn at some point, that would have let SF grow again, the Celtic Tiger made them stagnate.

  • BERZERKERMG

    In fairness to SF they saw which way the wind was blowing and went hard left and cashed in on the opportunity. But that was never their master plan. They are actually a very malleable party which I think will stand to them in the end. FF said they’d run in council elections, which seems a bit piecemeal. I don’t think they’ll go beyond that unless they’re sure a border poll will pass, at which point they will charge in like the cavalry and pretend they were always invested in the North. I could be wrong of course but I think northerners underestimate the emotional motivations of these civil war parties. PSF and SDLP have to run in the North because it’s where they’re from so it would be ridiculous not to. But for FF it’s a risk and they are a risk-averse bunch of people. There is an awful lot of emotional baggage about running in the North. It’s basically running in Britain and being subservient to UK law. The GAA men in cumanns in Munster and Connacht won’t stand for it at the end of the day, that’s what I think. Do not expect southern parties contesting northern elections. The next battle for nationalism is joint authority, at which point running in the north is an option. Eastwood championed it at the start of the year and Adams on Newstalk this morning hinted at it. It’s a no-brainer to my mind that this is where this is going. It’s the only logical solution when you’re approaching a 50-50 demographic chart and there is zero interest in a Northern Irish identity.

  • 1729torus

    The NI Tories did reasonably in the 2014 Local and the 2015 Westminster elections, and managed to build on their small base. In the 2014 locals, they went from 1,371 FPVs to 2,527 FPVs.

    We’re talking about a 20 year process of slow and steady growth here, look how long it took SF to advance in the South and become a real threat to FF

    FF would start by running a handful of candidates in Nationalist areas around the border and Belfast. Once these candidates got elected, they can build out further.

    If Brexit is delayed, FF can copy what SF did in the 2011 Presidential election with the 2019 European Parliament election. Run a strong candidate to raise support/awareness and find out where they might do well in future.

  • Jag

    It’s so bad for the SDLP Mick that it’s unclear whether you’re referring to S Belfast or Foyle, the former was won by the “ingenue” because the UUP fielded a paper no-hoper candidate; there was a pact in all but name. In Foyle, the legacy of Martin McGuinness, God rest him, which made SF biggest party in March just carried on.

    This is looking really bad for the SDLP because SF won’t need SDLP to stand aside in N Belfast next time round, John Finucane should win even with the SDLP standing.

    Foyle, FST, S Down are all in the bag for SF already. In S Belfast, SF is now at 70% of SDLP vote, up from 30% a decade ago. In five years, SF will have overtaken SDLP in S Belfast.

    FF doesn’t have a choice any more. Brexit is coming sooner rather than later, the Border Poll is coming and in the South, SF isn’t weakening even as the economy improves; FF needs a new market.

  • Gopher

    Thats the wrong question. How many North Down’s are there within Nationalism to support a Sylvia Hermon? My guess is zero. Sylvia only exists because North Down exists.

  • james

    “The only free ground in Northern Ireland politics with room for expansion is the centre and that means giving up on the 32 county republic in the short, medium and possibly forever term”

    That is pretty much where we’re at, yes.

    It’s very fortunate for those of us, of all colours and creeds, who are pro-union that SF (so sly at grinding out votes from places where, to the naked eye, none actually exist) that they are so obtuse and one-dimensional when it comes to realistic planning.

    SF just won’t ever get the numbers they need for a UI alone – there are far too many decent, ordinary people on the ‘nationalist’ side who just will not vote for former terrorists and those who celebrate terrorism. And since SF are intent on clinging like an evil weed to SDLP and choking the life out of it as a viable option they are screwed.

    The only hope for a UI is for FF to stand up here – which they don’t seem to want any part of.

  • BERZERKERMG

    You’re deluded, mate. FF don’t need the North. SF need the South. FF aren’t prepared for a 20-year process in the North. They don’t care. It’s not going to happen. The future for NI nationalists, as as Eastwood and Adams have suggested, is Joint Authority. Then southern politicians will get interested in the North. There will be no southern interest in NI until that’s on the agenda.

  • 1729torus

    FF will be able to compete with SF if they are sufficiently sound on the national question, and not willing to roll over to the DUP or seek affirmation from the British. Being a liberal conservative party, they should be able to get votes and transfers that SF can’t.

  • JohnTheOptimist

    Totally agree. The SDLP abandoned nationalism years ago. They are now a left-liberal party, not a nationalist one. At any SDLP gathering you are far more likely to find the LGBT flag flying than the Irish tricolour. As a nationalist, I welcome their demise and trust that they will soon be wound up formally. Prominent nationalists in N. Ireland should invite FF to set up here as soon as possible.

    What nationalism needs is a party that promulgates the benefits of a United Ireland with the same fervour as the DUP promulgates the benefits of the Union. It should cater for a spectrum of views on social issues, not simply adopt the social liberal agenda in its entirety like the SDLP has done. A fat lot of good its done them when it comes to elections. They’ve simply antagonised their rural base in exchange for winning plaudits from the Irish Times and the Guardian. These same organs of liberal opinion keep predicting that the DUP will soon sink because of its ‘dinosaur’ views on various issues, but it never does.

  • 1729torus

    I’m assuming that FF will do what they said they’ll do. Whether that makes me deluded remains to be seen.

  • mickfealty

    You’re ignoring the deeper point, which is that since SF killed the institutions, northern Nats have no representative voice (bar Martina in Europe and she’s going soon). Just heads of parties.

  • doopa

    I heard SF wanted representatives in the Irish Parliament not the British Parliament?

  • BERZERKERMG

    “I’m assuming that FF will do what they said they’ll do.”

    Now you really are deluded!

  • Vince

    It’s money and resources Mick, plain and simple. Also most of the electorate happy for politics here to be reduced to sporting activity (Celtic vs Rangers) rather than democratic endeavour on the normal day-day issues. This place really is nuts.

  • Siopa Mor

    Fianna Fail have always been about to engage in the north. The only point to it is to pretend to be a 32 county party. It will never actually happen nor will it ever be ruled out.

  • Mark Dowling

    FF are a liberal conservative party all right – liberal when talking to liberals, conservative when talking to conservatives 🙂

  • Mark Dowling

    It was under Enda. Now not so much – possibly even less if Coveney had won.

  • Mark Dowling

    The main selling point for a competitor to SF is that attending at Westminster materially affects the number of MPs required to govern and potentially collects kickbacks in return for supporting a Government. SF definitely helped the Tories in the former and arguably helped polarize voting which may have helped the DUP with the latter. Thing is, setting up shop in the North isn’t much problem for FF for Assembly election, but FF doesn’t need even the smallest split right now as it lines up a crack at FG’s new Leader (calling him a Tory to his face and gay slurs in private, doubtless).

    On the other hand, FG might have less impact if they set up shop, but they could potentially look for Alliance voters as well as SDLP ones. Since they will always be thought of as a West Brit party for historical reasons, not bothering with abstentionism will likely be less troubling given that SF won’t likely gobble up as many of their voters and activists in the South as FF would risk.