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Opinion: The partnership with Fianna Fail won't give the SDLP the electoral boost it's hoping for

This proposed partnership won’t do much for either party and it won’t help to revive the institutions in the North, writes Gareth Brown.

Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.
Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.
Image: Niall Carson

SDLP MEMBERS WILL vote on a proposed new partnership with Fianna Fáil at a Special Conference this weekend in Newry.

The vote is the culmination of 18 months of negotiations between the respective leaderships, with a formal announcement made in a joint press conference in Belfast a couple of weeks ago.

However, what was actually announced, and the lack of detail, appeared to fall some way short of expectations – a loosely defined ‘policy partnership’ which has left many a commentator – and surely voters North and South – wondering what it actually means. 

On the Fianna Fáil side, for some, there is a long-held ideological view that the party should have an all-island presence. For others, it’s a convenient way to topple the Sinn Féin high horse of having such a presence, that irks many Fianna Fail TDs.

For the SDLP, the rationale generally falls into two categories of thought: firstly, that the party’s nationalist credentials are weakened by its lack of an all-Ireland presence; and secondly, that its electoral challenges necessitate the change in order to challenge Sinn Féin.

The past

There has been a lot of commentary on the role of John Hume within this debate, for obvious reasons.

However, a closer examination of Hume’s politics demonstrates why this partnership is a step backwards.

Hume’s doctrine was predicated on the need for a brand of nationalism for which unionists and other non-nationalists could respect and trust – a politics forged on the principles of consent and self-determination, which sought to bring people together through social democracy.

Delivering that required a party that was not shackled to the politics of the South.

For Hume, this autonomy and independence were crucial to the northern project because it gave others in Northern Ireland the confidence in the integrity of his commitment to making the North work.

This strategy, built on relationships with all the parties in the South, was crucial to achieving a new, reconciled Ireland and establishing a credible and responsible path towards unity.

The northern institutions

It’s not difficult to see that thing are not going very well in the North just now.

The problem hasn’t changed and although the solution, power-sharing, remains the same, it has yet to be meaningfully implemented.

A basic grasp of Irish history will tell you that it is difficult to see how Fianna Fáil, and the SDLP formally and exclusively associated with it, is the solution here.

For one thing, Fianna Fáil deliberately sought to manipulate the outcomes of the New Ireland forum – Hume’s flagship initiative – and went on to oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Nobody doubts that Bertie Ahern played a hugely important role in the Good Friday Agreement, but he was the Taoiseach at the time and the political winds were set on a way forward. What else was he going to do other than play his part?

Ahern was also complicit in the destructive changes that were made to the Good Friday Agreement at St. Andrews.

Many of these changes, including giving an effective veto to the DUP and Sinn Féin over the formation of an Executive, have directly contributed to the stalemate the North is currently experiencing.

To make any real progress in terms of reconciliation, you have to make the North work.

This clearly involves building meaningful relationships with non-nationalists and unionists which is undermined when you have one political eye on Belfast and the other on Dublin.

Electoral boost?

Obviously, both parties must think the move is going to play well for them in the polls or they wouldn’t do it.

In terms of Southern nationalism, you do have to wonder whether the lack of clarity over the partnership will result in any real all-island dividend for Fianna Fail. 

With Fianna Fail struggling to make any particular inroads in the polls, they are now polling below their 2016 recovery – but why would partnering with the SDLP help them? Looking at the lacklustre performance of Sinn Fein post-presidential election, one has to question whether an all-island presence is actually that important to voters?

A core pillar of the proposed partnership is to work together to end the political impasse and broken politics of Northern Ireland.

In this regard, Fianna Fail has two problems. The first is that the parties aforementioned checkered history on Northern politics will create natural suspicion and cynicism with unionists.

The second is that it is impossible to be more ‘Republican’ than Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. Unlike in the Dail, it simply won’t work to stand up and decry Sinn Fein’s history and associated links with the IRA.

They have been a mainstream governing political party in Northern Ireland for over ten years, and their past does not appear to present a barrier to those voters for whom Irish reunification is important – they are already voting for Sinn Fein.

A further pillar of the partnership with the SDLP is a joint platform to develop a coherent policy on Brexit – but again, polls show that voters North and South are pleased with how Fine Gael has handled Ireland’s interests in this regard.

So while it might sound good, once you take a closer look, it all starts to unravel a little bit and perhaps that explains the reported nervousness in Fianna Fail for anything more than the modest, underwhelming partnership that has been agreed.

They think they can win over younger nationalists by being more nationalist, but that won’t necessarily work. In the last Assembly election, around one in four of the electorate voted for nationalist parties, and approximatley one in five voted for Sinn Fein.

If the one in five voters for whom Irish reunification is very important is already voting, and voting for Sinn Fein, it surely begs the question of the logic behind a strategy to win them over, especially if that strategy is at the expense of other potential growth areas and at the risk of losing a chunk of your current voters to the Alliance Party.

The current generation of the SDLP seem to be obsessed with Sinn Fein and this has led to its failure to see the electoral wood for the trees. They are unsure of their own message and unable to identify their audience.

At the last election in the North approximately one-third of people registered to vote opted for the DUP and SF collectively. That means the middle ground is huge -  there is space for growth and revival of the SDLP – but it’s hard to see how Fianna Fail taps into this.

It is understandable that both Fianna Fail and the SDLP are doing some soul searching, but this move won’t boost the SDLP and nor will it help to revive the institutions in the North.

It’s still unclear what it means in practical terms or how it will actually work.

Gareth Brown is an Irish political consultant/commentator based in Scotland, and a former SDLP adviser and third-generation member.


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