How the SDLP-Fianna Fáil link up might help us break out of NI’s downward cycle of mutual reaction…

At the weekend, Alex Kane predicted that the partnership announced last Thursday between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil would lead to a further consolidation of unionism under the DUP banner:

…if the SDLP were to take their seats in a rebooted Executive it puts Fianna Fáil influence at the very heart of Northern Ireland’s government, too.

In other words, in the next executive unionists could find themselves facing nothing but all-island nationalism and the distinct possibility that either Sinn Féin or SDLP-Fianna Fáil could be in or propping up the Irish government.

Unionists would not relish that prospect.

Another knock-on effect of the SDLP link to Fianna Fáil is that it makes it impossible for the UUP to cut a deal with the SDLP.

He argues this would inevitably see an outrush of folks from the UUP to the DUP, citing 56 per cent of UUP members said they supported a full merger with the DUP, or electoral pacts and alliances “when it suits us” from data for a recent book on the UUP.

That’s a very broad category. It’s likely that most members concluded the party’s only experience of cross community pacts is that the benefits only go one way. In contrast intra unionist pacts have nearly always yielded something of value.

As it happens, I disagree with Alex for three reasons:

  1. Movement towards the DUP is happening anyway. 36% of NI voters voted for the DUP in 2017. Many will revert to UUP/TUV in May. Some won’t. None of it will be anything to do with Fianna Fáil.
  2. The real reason unionism is concerned is that nationalism has already lifted its football and has walked off the pitch in a grump thus in denial of the power-sharing institutions it once shrilly demanded. Again, nothing to do with FF.
  3. I’ve argued that it was profoundly anti democratic to argue that the DUP had no right to represent voters at the heart of UK government. People may not like it but that reality is being adjusted to. If the opposite should happen the sky will not fall in either.

In general, because the expectation was a merger, there’s been no real attempt at a qualitative analysis of such a link up. Despite much speculation to the contrary, the SDLP will enjoy complete operational independence from FF for the foreseeable.

The link at policy level should mean a general improvement in the product but no jarring changes in the brand for either its  own voters or its unionist rivals/partners.

In aligning himself with Martin’s critical view of SF’s cold caricature of unionists as people who never change, he can cast them as partners in a joint enterprise that finally develops into the kind of indigenous political culture already well under way in Scotland.

You can only stop political evolution for so long.

There are powerful synergies to exploit through the SDLP/FF hook up that will take a while to emerge.

Colum’s speech at the weekend was probably the tightest and the best he’s delivered in part because he’s advocating both a UI and a functional partnership with whomever unionism decides is their leader.

The most outrageous aspect of the last two years has been the attempt by SF (enabled, it must be said, by an acquiescent SDLP) to legislate who represents an acceptable leader for unionism (no one being the obvious logical answer).

This new partnership could help put an end to such sterile anti social politicking. Old brands can be renewed. It’s not easy, it requires some internal bloodletting. And the Big Bang is more likely to come (if at all) at the end of the process of change, rather than the beginning.

In his introduction, Alex rightly asserts that Northern Ireland politics generally works on the Newtonian principle of reactionary politics. It was certainly this which disposed of the Conservative UUP link up before it really had a chance to grow.

This arrangement strips out most a priori speculation about what such an arrangement might look like. In part, to avoid invoking such reactionary cycles but perhaps too to avoid making the kinds of mistake that have brought us to such a sorry pass.

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