Are the SDLP really calling for the unconditional return of Stormont?

The suspicions of northern nationalists that Micheal Martin’s flirtation with all-Ireland politics is motivated exclusively by a desire to counter Sinn Fein’s Southern advances will not have been allayed by the tentative FF/SDLP alliance’s initial bustle of activity.

Prior to Colum Eastwood’s ill-conceived invocation of Donald Tusk’s ‘special place in Hell’ remark during his weekend speech, the SDLP leader had already agreed and published a set of principles with his Fianna Fail counterpart.

The announcement of the five joint Brexit principles proposed by the parties was a damp squib. They will fail to gain any traction.

But they deserve further comment as the fact the SDLP thought it wise to agree such an approach does not augur well for the fledgling alliance.

It is simply extraordinary that the SDLP would agree to commit themselves to a return to Stormont without resolving the outstanding rights issues that have become the litmus test for genuine power-sharing and equality within the northern institutions.

It amounts to a spectacular misreading of public sentiment in the north, providing Sinn Fein with an endless amount of material with which to attack the party. Given that we are but a few months away from an election, that spells further trouble for the SDLP and will put them on the defensive in a way that was wholly unnecessary.

Furthermore, the FF/SDLP principles include an explicit attack on the existing cross-party pro-Remain alliance in the north which is likely to jeopardise any further joint statements and actions.

To date, the joint statements released by the leaders of Sinn Fein, Alliance, the Greens and the SDLP  have provided an opportunity to convey a unified message from the pro-Remain majority in Northern Ireland to British and EU-wide audiences. Cynically dismissing the cross-party statements in the manner done by the SDLP and Fianna Fail is not only perplexing but is counter-productive.

The abrupt nature of the principle committing the parties to supporting the backstop is bizarre, lending credence to the theory that these principles were hastily devised and agreed without sufficient thought.

The third commitment is a barely concealed attack on Sinn Fein’s abstentionism policy at Westminster. SDLP MPs have always taken the oath of allegiance to the British monarch and sat in the Commons, so this is not a surprise. From the SDLP perspective, given the present Commons arithmetic, arguing for a pragmatic engagement with Westminster, consistent with the SDLP’s historic policy, was always going to be a part of the Fianna Fail/SDLP assault on Sinn Fein. But the suggestion that all parties “have a duty” to sit in the Assembly to make every vote count once again implies an endorsement of an immediate return to Stormont with no conditions attached.

The fourth and fifth principles are important for what has been omitted as much as for what has been included.

The theme of reassuring unionists about constitutional change is simply bizarre in this context. There is no one implying that constitutional change can come about other than through the Good Friday Agreement mechanisms, so it is unclear as to why the parties thought that the longest shared principle purportedly on the theme of Brexit should be one addressing misplaced unionist ‘fears’.

Similarly, the subsequent principle urging pro-Remain parties to recommit to reconciliation sits uneasily, with its implicit inference that those espousing a pro-Remain perspective should have reason to feel defensive about reconciliation.

What is noteworthy, however, is that the new FF/SDLP partnership thought it sensible to deliberately exclude any reference to the legitimacy of promoting Irish unity in the principles outlining their shared Brexit agenda, not least since they deemed it worthwhile to include in these principles the broad brush themes of reassuring unionism and promoting reconciliation. Nor is there any reference to resolving the outstanding rights-based issues that has led to Stormont remaining in a state of suspension for more than two years.

This is important because it suggests that FF and the SDLP have adopted a position of seeking to frustrate and restrict the scope for discussions and initiatives on the theme of Irish unity at the very moment the mood and enthusiasm for such a public discussion has reached a peak in the modern era. That might suit Micheal Martin’s agenda, but Colum Eastwood (and his election candidates) have a different public audience to both lead and appeal to in the coming months.

It is very early days in the new political relationship, but the SDLP need to insert some northern realism into their FF partnership or the fledgling alliance might not survive May’s brutal encounter with political and electoral reality.