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Sunday 24 September 2023 Dublin: 17°C
Niall Carson/PA Archive/Press Association Images
Column Will we have a 32-county Fianna Fail?
Micheál Martin has stabilised the party with relative ease and skill – but will he become the first leader of an Irish political party to lead a solely southern-based party into Northern Ireland?

MAYOR OF CHICAGO and former White House Chief of Staff and Rahm Emanuel has been fond of telling people to never let a serious crisis go to waste.

Fianna Fáil’s very own crisis occurred when the party was eviscerated in the 2011 general election. Paradoxically, the nature and scale of the defeat has actually been of benefit to Michéal Martin. It allowed him to introduce a raft of internal party reforms such as ‘one member one vote’ with little or no opposition from the party. Notwithstanding the dissent from Éamon Ó ‘Cuiv over the Fiscal Compact Treaty and the large-scale revolt of the party’s more conservative members  over abortion, Micheál Martin has stabilised the party with relative ease and skill.

Having succeeded in resuscitating the patient, Martin must now illustrate what a newly renewed Fianna Fáil stands for. Fianna Fáil’s republican past and values offer him with the perfect opportunity to do this.

Martin has the chance to be the first leader of an Irish political party to lead a solely southern-based party into Northern Ireland. This is a golden opportunity for Martin to add substance to claims of being committed to ‘a new way of doing politics’ while at the same time reinforcing the party’s political Republican beliefs.

Planting the seeds

The party has long toyed with the idea of becoming a player in Northern Irish politics. Bertie Ahern initiated this process in 2007 when he extended the Fianna Fáil organisation into Northern Ireland. This process involved the establishment of the William Drennan cumann at Queen’s University Belfast and the Watty Graham cumann at Magee campus of the Ulster of University, in Derry.

Furthermore, in the same month, Fianna Fáil successfully registered with the UK Electoral Commission as a Northern Ireland political party. Indeed, Micheál Martin announced on RTE in the aftermath of the catastrophic general election defeat that Fianna Fáil ‘actively considering’ entering Northern Ireland politics. So what form would the party take in the North? Who, if anyone, would they appeal to?

SDLP/FF merger

Many of those who have anticipated the entry of Fianna Fáil have long talked about a possible merger between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil. Any merger with the SDLP would be a huge political mistake by Fianna Fáil. The potential appeal of Fianna Fáil to Northern voters lies in the fact that the party has no ties to the staid old politics that has caused so many people to become disillusioned with politics in North Ireland.

Indeed, merging with the SDLP would succeed only in immediately nullifying the party’s claim to be offering a new way forward for Northern Ireland. Fianna Fáil has the opportunity to articulate a post agreement political future for Northern Ireland. Any merger with the SDLP would handicap Fianna Fáil from the outset by confining their appeal to traditional nationalist SDLP.

Policy! Policy! Policy!

There are many problems in Northern Ireland that are not being address by the old order parties in the North. The CBI (Confederation of British Industry) recently expressed their frustration with the Executive, urging them to reform how it delivers key infrastructure projects such as roads and energy links as a matter of urgency. The Executive is currently in a state of paralysis with lack of major policy development across key areas such as education and business development.

Northern Ireland is crying out for a political party that is willing to tackle issues such as the divided education system that is failing the young people of Northern Ireland. Fianna Fáil in the North could offer a direct contrast to the parties of paralysis by offering voters policies that provided them with solutions to these key problems.

If Fianna Fáil is to contest elections and succeed in Northern Ireland then its approach must be rooted in policy. A policy based ‘new politics’ approach has the potential to appeal not only disillusioned nationalists but also to middle class unionists who are sick and tired of the do nothing Executive.

The launch of Basil McCrea’s NI21 party highlights the appetite for fundamental change in Northern Ireland. This desire for a new way of doing politics offers Fianna Fáil a historic opportunity but with assembly elections just three years away and with the party’s resources already stretched perhaps the 2016 Assembly elections are too soon. Despite these obstacles a combination of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising and the opportunity to take on Sinn Féin in their own back yard may prove to be too tempting for Micheál Martin to pass up.

Mark is a Public Relations Consultant and Fianna Fáil activist. He specialises in political communication and media relations. Follow him on Twitter at @poliireland.

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