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…