Fianna Fail/SDLP merger downgraded to a policy-sharing exercise. It appears the north must wait (again).

The much vaunted, anticipated and protracted news regarding the apparent coming together of Fianna Fail and the SDLP looks set to be reduced to a policy sharing exercise in the short-term later this week.

A number of news outlets are reporting tonight that Fianna Fail are downplaying talk of a merger or alliance, emphasising instead that the initiative looks set to merely involve the sharing of a number of policies. The Irish Independent has even quoted a senior Fianna Fail source as stating, “it is not a merger and it is not a preliminary to a merger.

Alas, it appears the north must wait. Again.

For those who were hoping to see the launch of a second large nationwide political party, competing with Sinn Fein on this front, it will come as a significant disappointment. Frictions within the SDLP over any impending link-up with Fianna Fail have been apparent for quite some time, but it was believed that the party leadership were determined to stay the course.

The logic of a Fianna Fail takeover of the SDLP (from the latter’s position) was articulated effectively by Denis Bradley earlier this month:

The new, young leadership of the SDLP had a choice: allow the party to continue a slow and painful decline into irrelevance or resurrect an old idea of positioning itself in the mainstream of all-Ireland politics. That argument had merit in the past but in the slipstream of Brexit it was a no-brainer. For the foreseeable future all politics will be obsessed and dominated by the economic and constitutional consequences of Brexit. The Irish border is already a central cog in the debate about when and how Brexit will manifest itself on the ground. The issue of a border poll, how and when it should be triggered, will keep imposing itself. The changing demographics in Northern Ireland, nationalism and unionism moving out of minority and majority status to face each other on an equal numerical basis, will create its own dynamics and opportunities.

Instead, the SDLP look set to enter the local government election campaign with nothing new to counter a rampant Sinn Fein, leaving the smaller nationalist party vulnerable to further electoral losses. Indeed, it is very possible that Peadar Toibin’s new political party could add to the SDLP’s woes in many rural constituencies across the north, further chipping away at the party’s mandate and relevance.

Pitching a policy-sharing arrangement as a substantive development will require both parties publicly committing to (and acting upon) a range of headline-grabbing policies. Last April, the SDLP Leader, Colum Eastwood, publicly called for a New Ireland Forum to be re-established. Were both parties to commit to such a policy, delivered in a defined timeframe and with a commitment to act upon recommendations when in office, that could begin to seize the initiative from Sinn Fein with regard to perceptions of the sincerity of intentions to pursue Irish unity.

With Brexit as the backdrop to the proposed policy-sharing initiative, there is an opportunity for Micheal Martin to make a shared public commitment on the issue of allocating MEP seats to a northern constituency to ensure continued representation for Northern Irish residents in the European Parliament post-Brexit.

In any event, my sense is that this development will fall far short of what will be required to halt the downward trajectory which has defined the SDLP’s electoral and political fortunes since the Good Friday Agreement.

It may yet prove to be the case that a further shredding of the SDLP mandate in May strengthens the case for an authentic Fianna Fail takeover, but that will require a commitment to a northern expansion appearing to be singularly lacking as a priority for the incumbent party leader.



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