Belfast Telegraph

A southern fightback may breach the border

By Liam Clarke

If you have never heard of John Ramsey, you may be about to. The 49-year-old Carnlough man is chairperson of Fianna Fail's Antrim forum. He is also standing for election to one of 20 directly-elected positions on the party's ruling ard comhairle at this weekend's ard fheis.

The voting will show how serious Fianna Fail is about organising in the north. Like the British and Irish Labour parties, it currently accepts members here, but does not allow them to contest elections; there are said to be about 250 signed up in Co Antrim, which is the party's strongest area of organisation in Northern Ireland.

There are also two motions on Northern Ireland on the clar (agenda): one commits the party to allowing northern members to fight elections; the second seeks to set up a committee to look at the issue.

The smart money is on the second option - the party's heart wants to run in the north, but its head tells it that this is no time to open a new front, or try anything too strenuous.

"After a car crash, the first thing you do is stabilise the patient," one party strategist observed. The crash came in last year's Dail election, when the once-dominant party suffered the worst defeat of an Irish government in the history of the state. Its vote was more than halved to 17.4% and its seats cut from 77 to 20.

Since then, it has concentrated on building up its internal organisation. The number of young people standing for the ard comhairle shows a fightback has begun, but an opinion poll last Sunday showed support bottoming out at 16%.

The once all-conquering party is now in third place behind Fine Gael and Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein scored 25% - nearly double the 13% which Martin McGuinness received in the presidential election.

The project of fighting elections in the north was conceived under the halcyon days of the Celtic Tiger, when Bertie Ahern saw it as a means of bearding the Shinners in their northern strongholds and finishing them off.

Instead, Sinn Fein has taken the fight to Fianna Fail in the Republic and could supplant it.

The feeling in Fianna Fail is that that won't happen. Everything rests on the European and council elections in the south in 2014.

Post-election polls showed that about three-quarters of Fianna Fail's lost votes went to Fine Gael and the party feels that they can hope to win a lot of this back as austerities continue to bite. That - and not the north - has to be their focus next year. If they start to pull round, then the next Assembly elections would come into focus, hence the delaying tactic of a committee to look at it.

If Mr Ramsey is elected to the ard comhairle, it will show that Stormont is a serious possibility. The Conservatives sent out such a signal this month when they appointed Irwin Armstrong, the head of its organisation in Northern Ireland, to the party board.

He got an ovation at his first meeting.

We will soon know if Fianna Fail has the same level of commitment.

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