Poor old SDLP! What’s the point of voting in council elections next year for a party that says it may go out of business not now but maybe later?
If Fianna Fail enter the lists, it has to be big, it has to be about more than rescuing the anti- Sinn Fein tradition of northern nationalism. It can only be to rob Sinn Fein of its role as the pacemaker for a united Ireland. Who ought to be better placed than Fianna Fail, “the republican party?” Otherwise why bother?
Quite suddenly, with Brexit and political breakdown in the North, unity with a prospering Republic has emerged more strongly than ever as a benign option for the North, replacing the old republican irredentism. Sinn Fein is too small on the island as a whole and too toxic in the North to pull it off alone.
Gerry Adams accepted this years ago when he began calling for a pan-nationalist strategy for unity, The vision appears before us is of a Fianna Fail-led government in Dublin cautiously decamping forces north with former SDLP people acting as scouts through unfamiliar territory peopled by hostile natives of their own and the other kind; or else a vision so compelling, attractive and obvious that a Fine Gael-led government would be bound to follow it with Sinn Fein north and south falling into line. That is the only “political realignment” that matters if you rule out a miracle marriage between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
It would elevate the unity of Ireland into prime position for the first time in over a century. Brexit would be the catalyst in a climate in which that northern nationalists have been turning away from any form of UK settlement – permanently as many think.
What’s the strategy? The big question is how Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein would relate to each other. Northern electoral logic impels a pre-election pact for the next Assembly election to maximise the nationalist vote. If this exceeds or nearly matches the unionist vote, then Stormont may be finished and a border poll is on. If a majority for unity is won and the terms of the question commit both states to act on the result, as things stand a southern referendum must be “ concurrent.”
Is this what the SDLP have in mind?
A Northern pact implies a southern coalition or similar; the end of Fianna Fail’s prevarication on that score and probably a new leader. The pace of southern politics in quickening. Fianna Fail will soon be pressed on their intentions for the North.
For the romantics, the soldiers of destiny on the march has a hard to resist appeal even after the battering of the last decade. Others will know better than I if the bulk of the Republic’s voters would be impressed. Would they welcome a stronger approach to unity, is what it boils down to. Fine Gael would be bound to point out all the problems, the scale of the risk of leaving so much of their own destiny in the hands of flaky northern voters . And a border poll which is more than consultative requires a ” concurrent” referendum in the south. Would they welcome it in five years’ time?
In the meantime. Brexit and the Stormont standoff have to be dealt with. Neither may have gone away by the time of next year’s council elections.
If Brexit is an obvious disaster and cross border trade is impeded, then a unity strategy on those grounds alone would seem more viable than ever. But if Brexit results in a continuing open border and the free trading which everybody would like to see, then what is left of the big Brexit issue?
Positioning on Stormont is no easy matter as the SDLP proves every time their leader opens his mouth.
Would there be any place for an Assembly strategy anyway? Need they care about the unionists if they go all out for vote harvesting? If there is no pre- electoral pact, what niche is there for Fianna Fail to fill? Would they (1) basically endorse Sinn Fein’s version of the abortive agreement ; (2) go back to Stormont unconditionally, surely impossible to sell to voters; or (3) go back in exchange for a British promise of a border poll? The DUP would surely accept (1) but tell them to go whistle with (2) and (3). They might well refuse in advance to form an Executive. And so they all get quickly bogged down in much the same old mire. A pre-election pact is grabby, so easy to understand and pure zero sum.
How would the British government react if this strategy emerged? Not before time they would be forced to look at the implications of a greater focus on Irish unity, even supposing they get through Brexit relatively smoothly. It seems likely they would have to produce more specific criteria for calling a border poll. While the consent principle is sacrosanct, they would also in time be forced to chose positions either as persuaders for the Union or for “ soft” unity with their blessing.
The shape of a Brexit settlement may change the character of the options. After having gone to enormous trouble to keep the border open but intact, the Conservatives would resist abolishing it altogether, particularly if the DUP was still in a strong position at Westminster. While NI has always been different, they fear a domino effect in Scotland.
Labour would probably stress unity by consent and the bipartisan approach would come under strain. Fianna Fail would be asked go against their instincts and stand for Westminster, a richly ironic situation for the party of de Valera.
What of the status quo? The present governments in London and Dublin London are mighty reluctant to confront the border issue at all under anything like the present fluid conditions. Their best choice is to cooperate more closely than ever to make Brexit work for everybody. But new battle lines will have been drawn that make them dependent on the uncertain fortunes of Brexit. Pit a vivid dream against an uncertain outcome and what do you decide?
I would mourn the submergence of a noble tradition rooted in our own all too distinct political culture. What was Fianna Fail doing when the embryonic SDLP was demonstrating to ” We Shall Overcome” and changing the face of northern politics?
I also fear for a shared future in the North and the prospect of a dream that could turn into a nightmare.
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