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Why Fianna Fail's plan to run in Northern Ireland elections makes as much sense as Mike Nesbitt moving UUP HQ to Dundalk

Why the Soldiers of Destiny are risking a northern exposure, writes Malachi O'Doherty

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 15/09/2016

Renewing rivalries: A new battleground between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein will open up after Micheal Martin (right) announced he intends to make his party a political force in Northern Ireland
Renewing rivalries: A new battleground between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein will open up after Micheal Martin (right) announced he intends to make his party a political force in Northern Ireland

At first, it seems like a radical expansion, a brave and open political gesture, opening a party to people who had no previous relationship with it, an extension of influence to the far-flung and the estranged. People in Northern Ireland will be able to join Fianna Fail, a party with prospects of being in government in Dublin.

Could this lead to members from Newry, or Cushendall, one day being members of an Irish cabinet? Not really, since those constituencies are not represented in the Dail anyway. So, what is so exciting for people in Northern Ireland in a chance vote for the Soldiers of Destiny? Not much.

And the more you think of it, the more the boldness of Micheal Martin's announcement begins to unravel.

He has said that he wants his party to contest council elections in Northern Ireland in 2019. And from that toehold in the north, he presumably expects Fianna Fail to build a base here that can challenge for seats in the Assembly and even in Westminster.

Read that way, it seems more like an attempt to expand into new territory and to establish influence beyond the border of the Republic, or even the island of Ireland.

This is an attempt to change the way we vote here and offering us little in return.

For Fianna Fail, there are small gains to be made in the north, surely. The party is republican and its chief rivals on its own patch are Fine Gael and Sinn Fein.

It is currently vulnerable to be shown up by Sinn Fein as a party that opposes partition, but settles for it. While it organises on only one side of the border, it can be accused of endorsing that border.

While it has no support-base in the north, it can be mocked as an Irish republican party seeking to unite the country while ignoring the interests of those with whom the south should be joined.

So, the calculation goes, best just put that right and lay that argument to rest. And how? Get a few council seats in the north and declare that Fianna Fail, too, is an all-Ireland party.

This opens up a new battlefield against Sinn Fein.

In future, Fianna Fail will not just be fighting in southern constituencies against a party that claims to be more Irish, more republican, more gaelic and more radical than itself. It will be challenging the Chucks on the ground out of which they sprung.

But will it? There are dangers here. One is that a party from a neighbouring jurisdiction, seeking to put down roots in the fourth green field, will find that the ground there has already been tilled to the limit; that Fianna Fail in Fermanagh or South Armagh will fare about as well as Labour and the Conservatives did in the north, when they tried to import their parties from the other direction. Both projects have been embarrassing.

Yes, there were always strong reasons for offering alternative politics. There was clear heroism in the endeavour - and goodwill, too. The idea was to change the map of the sectarian political battleground, to reach out to the thousands of voters who were presumed not to want to vote on an identity parade.

That didn't work, because when you have a clash of the communities in a constituency here, the strongest motive for a vote may be to keep the other out, not to get your own in.

Compare that hopeful and magnanimous dream with what Fianna Fail is attempting.

It will be entering the cross-community contest, not subverting it.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP will say we don't need another nationalist party; it's hard enough to sustain two. They will round on Fianna Fail as vote-splitters, who will only clear more political space for unionists.

Which is sad and pathetic and must change, yet joining in is hardly the way to bring border politics to an end.

There is another reality in play here, the huge numbers of people who don't vote at all.

Labour and the Conservatives and others have dreamed the big dream. They have imagined that they can convert all (or most) of those who stay away from polling booths as if there was some danger they might be infected by an interest in bad politics.

They are the real people of Northern Ireland, the dream goes. They are sickened by sectarianism and their hopes have been dashed by chauvinistic, moralistic and shady parties.

So, what if they could be reached and offered an alternative? Might they provide a corner of the field in which new energies and fresh ideas might flourish? Nah. No chance. Not yet, anyway.

If Fianna Fail wants to change the sectarian standoff in Northern Ireland politics, then it will have to offer something to the unionists. But what?

The chance of drubbing Sinn Fein? In some contests, some unionists might give a vote to that.

Then there is the old way of working in Fianna Fail, by getting out there and doing favours for people in return for support. They have a party machine that is good at that.

And with their history of shenanigan politics, they might at least keep Sinn Fein and the SDLP on their toes.

Beyond the councils is the Assembly. Here, as in the councils, the Fianna Fail candidates will have to be homegrown. That is, they will have to either be defectors from other parties, or people we haven't heard of before.

Could this be Daithi McKay's chance of a return to Stormont?

And then there is Westminster. Fianna Fail can offer itself as the Irish republican party that will take its seats and - who knows? - even go into coalition with Labour, even govern.

Sorry, I dozed off there.

Or what about this? The big one: Europe.

What if Fianna Fail offered wee Northern Ireland representation at the European Parliament?

We would have been Brexited, but we would have two all-Ireland parties - Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail - that would be able to speak for us at the heart of Europe.

And just as Martin Ferris and Mary Lou McDonald could turn up at Stormont for negotiations on flags, parades and the past, our northern representatives would be able to join party delegations to Brussels (using their Irish passports, of course), while Boris Johnson was still waiting for his visa to come through.

Now you think of it, maybe Micheal Martin has shown us all the way.

Maybe there's a trick in this for Mike Nesbitt. He could shift Ulster Unionist HQ to Dundalk, fight a few seats down there and even fight European elections.


Well, it makes even more sense than Fianna Fail organising here in the north.

Belfast Telegraph

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