Is the Fianna Fáil partnership the SDLP’s Brexit moment? 

Naomh Gallagher is an epidemiologist by day, currently working in research and development in the health sector. In her own time she enjoys political chats with anyone who is willing to partake, and she is a member and former International Secretary of the SDLP (but all views are her own). Can be found on Twitter @naomhgallagher 

Since the Leave vote in 2016, countless column inches have been devoted to analysing the reasons behind that result. This weekend it could be argued that the SDLP are contemplating their own Brexit moment, a kneejerk display of nationalism as a response to being unsure about their place in the world.

For many the writing has been on the wall for a long time, but others have been shocked at the speed at which the SDLP-Fianna Fáil relationship went from furtive background negotiations to a fully-fledged partnership announcement, and this Saturday SDLP members will get the chance to have a meaningful vote on the party’s equivalent of Article 50 – paving the way for a raft of unintended consequences.

The five-page proposal, shared with SDLP members a week after the launch, has no information about the logistics of the partnership, nor does it outline how a shared policy platform will work in different jurisdictions.

This lack of detail undermines the promise that the partnership can break the cycle of political failure in Northern Ireland when many believe it is primarily the structural and political environment that needs to be considered if we are to seriously challenge the Stormont stasis.

This proposal fails to provide any evidence that an exclusive partnership arrangement with a centre-right political party will find the solutions that twenty years of power-sharing have failed to. As Theresa May found out when she walked into Westminster, Withdrawal Agreement under her arm, the detail can be your downfall.

In the SDLP’s case, the ambiguity of this proposal will alarm many members, who are being asked to blindly follow down a constitutionally shaky path, potentially breaking a number of important relationships along the way. As anyone who knows the SDLP membership will know, unquestioning lemmings they are not.

Building partnerships is a core SDLP tenet, and its members are proud of their national and international links; formal partnership with FF would likely end the SDLP’s long-standing relationship with the Party of European Socialists, at a time when European links have never been more important.

The party have always enjoyed positive relationships with all of the major political parties in the South, and it is hard to see how narrowing that reach is helpful as discussions on unity intensify.

Brexit is changing our political landscape. It has stoked the old divisions of the past. Creative and innovative thinking is required, and greater engagement is an admirable goal. Yet the voter seems to be lost in this current iteration of insular discussion.

Organisation aside, the focus of the SDLP should be in building partnerships with all of those who believe in a New Ireland, and a New Northern Ireland. The SDLP are leading the way in the current murky political climate; Nichola Mallon remains assiduous in her pursuit of social justice for the most vulnerable groups in society; Colum Eastwood is showing astute leadership on a global stage to challenge the political power of the DUP in Westminster; Claire Hanna is the de facto centre-ground Remain spokesperson in NI.

It is these acute and discrete challenges that affect peoples’ lives on a daily basis, whatever their constitutional preference and the SDLP narrowing their appeal seems unlikely to bear electoral fruit.

I acknowledge that the SDLP has to change; a legitimate problem does exist and standing still is not an option. However, a partnership with Fianna Fáil is not the answer. It may be too late for the UK to reverse their decision to further divide voters and shatter their relationships in Europe.

I hope that the SDLP does not make the same mistake on Saturday.