To challenge Northern Ireland’s weightless politics, any Fianna Fail move must change the conversation

A potential SDLP/Fianna Fail electoral arrangement was the top read story on the Irish Times on Tuesday. That’s the silly season for you. However, Fiach Kelly is a serious journo and Micheal Martin’s 2019 deadline is approaching.

There’s little detail other than something will be announced in September. Kelly suggests it could involve some form of “a phased process which would eventually bring both under the Fianna Fáil banner”.

It’s the latest hint matters are starting to get serious. No detail is currently available about what is being discussed in talks that are ongoing but intermittent rather than intense. But the idea of a phased process is an interesting one.

What sort of match?

The Irish Times Politics podcast drew upon their Saturday columnist, respected historian Diarmuid Ferriter, who argues that many of the problems of the SDLP has been that it has been seen as “the gospel according to John Hume”.

Whilst accepting Hume’s influence and inheritance to the party as “towering” he points to figures who predate Hume’s leadership like Gerry Fitt (and Paddy Devlin) who put Labour in the title of the party.

However far it has fallen, that centre-left resonance is still part of an intentional broader cross-community appeal that it has fitfully been able to draw upon (in last year’s Assembly elections for instance where it made proportional if marginal gains).

Ferriter also argues Hume internalised a lot of the party’s mission through his own priorities: the most important of which he identifies as the mission to get Dublin politically (and latterly constitutionally) involved in Northern Ireland.

How the SDLP stands now

Within the SDLP the strength of pro FF feeling seems to be piled up in border council areas, with Derry and Strabane and Newry and south Armagh having some of the strongest support. It exists in Belfast, but less so.

Influence from party leader Colum Eastwood (and any transitional period as people get used to the idea) could be decisive in delivering well beyond that core internal support. The question is whether it can grow beyond the present core.

Cross-border mergers have no great record in Northern Ireland. The trend has been toward disaggregation than amalgamation. The attempt to bring together the UUP and the Conservative party for example in 09/10 was a short lived disaster.

The notion of a merger between these two first emerged as the SDLP’s fortunes began to fade in the 2001 Westminster election when Sinn Fein first overtook as what had been up to then the mainstream nationalist party.

Every SDLP party leader since (until last year’s Assembly election)  has overseen a steady decline in votes and seats. The tea, sympathy and even funding from the southern parties have become smaller as time has passed.

In some places like West Belfast and North Antrim, the party is all but extinct. Its two former fortress constituencies (South Down and Foyle) finally fell to two inexperienced abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs in last year’s Westminster election.

Transition period

This long-term decline has often been cited privately by FF suitors as proof that the SDLP was merely a transitional party, rather than one with a clear long-term mission. And that all that’s been wanting was the trigger to make it happen.

Until recently, and despite interest at senior levels, Fianna Fail has been far too occupied with its own existential crises to contemplate picking up a new set of questionable political assets that could quickly turn into a liability.

This idea is different from the failed UCU-NF project in the sense that the current Fianna Fail leader first announced that he was ‘actively considering’ entering mainstream Northern Ireland politics when he became party leader in 2011.

Having pushed out a 2019 ‘target’ in 2014, the party’s leadership has since been reluctant to discuss the mechanics of how any northern intervention could/would operate. Not scaring SDLP horses is one obvious reason. Not being sure whether it would work is another.

But would an intervention work right now?

In a recent Irish Times column Newton Emerson reckoned that Fianna Fail was about 15 years too late for such a manoeuvre. But in 2005, Fianna Fail was trying to persuade their belligerent [and rather spikey? -Ed] northern cousins in Sinn Fein to give up the gun.

With no government responsibility, Fianna Fail has a free hand. In the meantime, SF has failed to translate its ten-year incumbency into any notable political success of its own. And Martin McGuinness’ successor struggles to get any recognition.

Brexit has changed the climate within nationalism. The chance for nationalists to join an all-island party with a capacity to influence and shape change on both sides of the border, the Irish Sea and in Brussels might now draw in those who once followed Hume.

Perhaps the kind of bread and butter issues the party would bring focus to – like achingly poor mobile and broadband coverage across NI, and multiplying failures in infrastructure, health and education – simply won’t or cannot interest voters or the media.

It begs the question: do most people in Northern Ireland only care about constitutional issues that are only likely to be decided in another generation? The answer is, by no means, certain. Others, like UCU – NF and NI21 – have tried and failed.

Right now there’s no ministers and no promises of future cash or largesse. Some say the voters’ shrug toward the institutions at Stormont is an indifference. But it also a reflects the fact MLAs (and many MPs) have shown their constituents scant evidence of value.

In such a weightless political vacuum, voters won’t have the same incentives to resist a new, pragmatic and unsentimental entrant focused on asking a new set of questions over why local life hasn’t got any better despite all the voting that’s taken place since 2007.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty