Fianna Fail and the SDLP met today in Belfast to launch their new partnership arrangement.
The partnership will have three key themes
1) A politics that works -This will address Anglo-Irish relations, the current political situation in Northern Ireland and a new economic model.
2) Better public services-This will address reforms to key areas such as Health and Education.
3) Uniting Ireland’s people-This will address greater cooperation on the island and the arrangement for a future poll on unity.
Specific policies will be looked at in regard to the following areas;
- Economic development
- The Unity of our People
- Health Services
- Reforming institutions
Launching this new initiative the SDLP Leader, Colum Eastwood said;
As political leaders, we have thought deeply as to how best to respond and act right now- and how best we respond and act for the generations to come.
That was the starting point of these discussions and it remains our guiding purpose.
We have come here today because during the course of those detailed conversations, we have come to a common analysis on the many challenges faced by this island.
As the leaders of the SDLP and Fianna Fail we have agreed a common proposal on how best to respond to the crisis which consumes our politics.
Eastwood also cited the inspiration of former Taoiseach, Sean Lemass and former SDLP Leader, John Hume;
I am strongly of the belief that in the last half century, above almost all others, two people came to define and shape the island in which we now live.
Taoiseach Sean Lemass and our own John Hume remain the intellectual heart of both our parties.
After some 800 years which inflicted so much hurt and harm on all our peoples, John Hume became the great healer of Irish history.
He recognised not everybody in the SDLP was on board (Claire Hanna was absent from todays event);
I know and accept that this partnership may be uncomfortable for some in both our parties.
Unlike some other political parties, I respect and value healthy discussion and disagreement.
This is a big change and big step in the history of both our parties and such change is never easy.
That is why, as I have always promised, I am bringing this partnership before the SDLP membership for their final say.
I am confident though that this partnership is not alone right for my party, but much more importantly, it is right for the people we serve.
The SDLP Leader concluded;
This partnership of the SDLP and Fianna Fail is an unprecedented and historic response to meet those huge challenges before us.
Both of our parties are choosing a better way, a better alternative and a better future for all our people.
Colum was followed by the Fianna Fail Leader, Micheal Martin who began by citing the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement;
The achievements of the Good Friday Agreement have been immense and deserve to be celebrated.
Unfortunately the reality is that today there is a deep and pervasive crisis which is causing far too many people to lose faith in politics and to believe that progress is impossible. This is a crisis which has been made worse by Brexit but has been steadily growing for most of the last decade.
It is over two years since the main institutions of the Agreement were collapsed. Northern Ireland has been left without a voice at the very moment that its future is at the centre of international debate for the first time in two decades and its elected representatives have no say as cuts to essential services are being implemented.
Martin then set out the context for why they are making this arrangement with the SDLP;
We believe that it is the duty of all who seek to represent the people to try and find a new way forward and not to accept that this destructive cycle will continue.
It was against this background that a discussion was begun a year ago with the SDLP about how we could cooperate.
In the dramatic breakthroughs of the 1990s and the following years our two parties played the central role in promoting a unified vision for democratic republicanism on this island.
Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern, John Hume and Seamus Mallon – as well as many others – kept their eye on the prize of a shared vision for peace and progress between Irish people of all traditions.
The Fianna Fail Leader said priority would be given to a joint platform on Brext;
Through a programme of joint working groups, research and public engagement we will work together on proposing alternatives for critical issues.
Obviously Brexit will be the first priority. Under the best possible scenario we will be entering into two or more years of discussions about Northern Ireland’s relationship with the EU.
The backstop is, as EU leaders keep saying, not a permanent solution yet no one appears to have been working on a permanent solution.
Fianna Fáil members of the Oireachtas and SDLP elected representatives will begin their work within weeks.
He concluded outlining why the partnership was a good idea;
This is a partnership which will be shaped by our members and will be focused on substance.
At this dangerous moment we simply cannot just accept business as usual. We must accept that there is a deep crisis and a new way forward must be plotted.
A new agenda which responds to the needs of the people of all parts of this island – which can show that we don’t just have to accept the permanent cycle of partisanship, underdevelopment and crisis – is urgently needed.
I am proud of the fact that our parties have agreed to share this work and I look forward to its impact in the months and years ahead.
Something that the assembled media kept coming back to was this notion of a merger. Eastwood was keen to stress that this was a partnership with the two parties maintaining distinct identities going into the future. There is no question for voters in the North, there will be SDLP candidates on the ballot paper in May and if there were a general election, Martin confirmed the party would be supporting the SDLP. There will be no Fianna Fail candidates running.
Both leaders seemed comfortable in each others presence and the various TDs and MLAs from both parties mingled and chatted as the event broke up. From the SDLP representatives there does seem to be a sense of hope that this can be something they can use as a positive going into the future.
There is no defined time scale for when these policies will be developed and the SDLP will be able to chart its own course in certain respects but I do wonder if this process gains momentum will the desire for a more formal merger take a life of its own in the years to come.
Fianna Fail will hold its Ard Fheis next month in Dublin and it will be interesting to see how many SDLP representatives attend and what kind of platform is given to them. For the SDLP, it’s now over to their special conference for members to decide on February 9th. 11/12 MLAs were present today and that indicates certainly at the top of the party there is a serious degree of buy in for this partnership.
From my own stance, I would worry that this could drift with no real movement on policy development. There is a real opportunity here over the noise of a focus about party labels to really generate some new ideas about the all island debate. Eastwood and Martin did talk up the policy aspect of this approach, now they need to deliver. The hard work begins now.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs