SDLP most at risk as Ahern moves north
Fianna Fail has cast its eye on Ireland's Fourth Green Field but, as Political Correspondent Noel McAdam reports, the implications for the SDLP involve threat and opportunity, as well as the thorny issue of when amalgamation turns to takeover
In a fast-changing political landscape, many appear to have been looking in quite the wrong direction. For weeks speculation has centred on developments within the hills of unionism: the emergence of a new party (though a committee-style body seems more likely, at least this week) and prospective talks on election deals between the DUP and Ulster Unionists.
Then from the opposite direction, among the plains people of Ireland, comes the bombshell announcement that, for the first time in its 81-year existence, Fianna Fail intends to examine operating as a 32-county party.
Laying claim to the mantle of "true" republicanism - the party emerged from the section of Sinn Fein opposed to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty - FF has always viewed Northern Ireland as the Fourth Green Field.
(The party does have one unofficial branch in the Field already, the Eamon de Valera cumann in Londonderry, which of course would obviously welcome the chance of becoming reality.)
Rumours have abounded for years and yet the timing for what FF itself calls a "discussion process" lasting up to a year is interesting. A lot now depends on the effort, and euros, now devoted to the project.
The fear among some unionists, however, is that if it is predicated on the stability of the Executive and its considerable success in bedding down, this strategy by the party led by Bertie Ahern, one of the peace process architects, now risks undermining it.
Significant enough in itself, the reaction of SDLP leader Mark Durkan may have been even more important.
Given his party's problems and performance - while Fine Gael appears in relative health - the danger is amalgamation would look like a takeover.
But far from arms length, Durkan positively seemed prepared for a team hug.
He would be foolish, of course, to shut any doors at this stage but, far from that, he seemed to set out the welcome mat and start polishing the brasswork in the parlour.
The Foyle MP might have been expected to downplay any prospect of joining Fianna Fail. Instead not only did he fail to specifically rule out a merger, he appeared to think it an almost wholly good idea.
This will cause ructions in some sections of his party, where some still hanker after increasing links with the Irish Labour Party, while others may be more naturally at home in modern Fine Gael.
And given the whiff of financial corruption, still emanating from the Mahon tribunal, many in the SDLP would not want to touch Fianna Fail even with Lord Kilclooney's bargepole.
But revealing he had been given a " heads up" about FF plans, and his party's development team has already met the FF team lead by Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern (as well as members of other parties in the Republic) Durkan couched his response in terms of partnership, cooperation and forging a new political path.
So while at least some form of pact could be anticipated as likely to wean some support back for the SDLP, and perhaps away from Sinn Fein, it could come at considerable cost to a combustible political party.
Sinn Fein, still shivering from its rebuff in the Republic's election, must have concerns at the prospect of a second major 32-county party (not forgetting the now-in-government Greens, of course). Potentially, FF could head SF off at the pass: particularly if a pact with the SDLP emerges, FF could be in government both north and south - and first.
Fianna Fail's intentions should perhaps be worrying unionists less than they so far appear to. The party won't be taking votes from unionists in any case.
But, beyond that, if Fianna Fail 'goes it alone' that could leave three parties chasing the nationalist vote in some constituencies, allowing unionists to come through the middle.