Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Northern soul searching

The prospect of Fianna Fail replacing the SDLP as the driving force in northern nationalism may be further off than its recent high-profile recruits suggest, argues Henry McDonald

During the crucial count inside Dublin's RDS back in the autumn, which would decide the fate of the EU Lisbon Treaty, a Fianna Fail back-room adviser took time out from European matters to reflect on matters north of the border.

As the votes mounted up in favour of a Yes to Lisbon that morning the Fianna Failer, who takes a keen interest in Northern Ireland matters, was asked how the process of merger with their northern 'sister' party was going.

Expecting him to outline how much progress, if any, had been made to foster an alliance with the SDLP, the Fianna Fail member replied with a joke-with-a-jag: "What? You mean our friends in the DUP?"

On ideological matters, of course, the DUP and Fianna Fail are worlds apart.

The Democratic Unionists are still robustly pro-union albeit with a traditional devolutionist bent; Fianna Fail is the 'Republican Party', the heirs of de Valera and Sean Lemass, more a 'national movement' than a regular political party.

Yet in functional terms, in the way they organise and can attract many social groups, the parties are quite similar.

They both have a traditional rural element which is socially conservative and religiously devout.

And yet each party has also attracted a talented segment of young urban professionals particularly in the top echelons of law in either jurisdiction.

If there was a united Ireland tomorrow many inside the ranks of the DUP who opted to accept the new dispensation on the island would be more comfortable in an alliance with Fianna Fail than say the traditionally more unionist-friendly Fine Gael.

However, the real motivation behind the Fianna Fail stalwart's quip has more to do with the frustration over failures to fuse with the SDLP.

The latter party not only faces a potentially divisive leadership contest, but also is still equivocating over a possible merger with Fianna Fail.

That procrastination has become more widespread in the SDLP as it watches Fianna Fail's support slump to unprecedented low levels in the polls as Brian Cowen's government tries to tackle the Republic's recession.

The merger sceptics ask: why at this point when the Soldiers of Destiny seemed destined to lose heavily at the next general election would the SDLP throw in their lot with this sinking party?

To write Fianna Fail off is one of the most dangerous political or journalistic gambles.

The party has become the most successful and enduring political force in western Europe and has survived while others such as the Italian Christian Democrats have virtually disappeared from the scene.

To underestimate Fianna Fail's capacity to recover, to appeal to the 'national interest', to portray the opposition as non-credible in terms of being an alternative government is, even in these recession-hit times, a rash move.

Those however, like Gerry McHugh, the former Sinn Fein MLA in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, who now see Fianna Fail as the vehicle to carry the north towards unity with the south, are seriously overestimating the party's ambitions for Northern Ireland.

During the Celtic Tiger boom years there was a growing sense of optimism among northern nationalists of all hues about the reach of the Republic's economic might.

The argument went that Dublin could now erase the border using grandiose infrastructure projects in the north paid for by a fantastically wealthy southern population. The north would become increasingly economically reliant on the richer south, just as Eastern Germany came to see the Federal Republic in the west as its saviour.

The death of the Celtic Tiger, the brutal slash-and-burn budget of 2009, rising unemployment, the return of emigration from the state and the black hole in Irish public finances have undermined that theory.

The central priority of this Fianna Fail-led government is and will remain for many years the stabilization of the Republic's economy.

With peace in the north secured (albeit threatened at times by sporadic bursts of dissident terrorism) the unification project is low down the agenda of any Irish government - even one formed by the 'Republican Party'.

Even leaving aside the unwillingness of any Dail party, and that now includes Sinn Fein, to challenge the principle of consent for constitutional change, the most pressing issue for years to come is economic survival.

Fianna Fail have been making tentative steps to organise associations in counties Down, Fermanagh and Derry.

Yet the party has not officially constituted these groups as 'cumainn' - or branches - with full rights to send delegates to annual conferences.

And for its latest, most famous recruit, the party has described Gerry McHugh as an Independent MLA who just happens to be a member of Fianna Fail.

The reticence in fully organising in the north reflects an unspoken concern within the party's high command that getting embroiled in northern politics has nothing of benefit for them.

Moreover, if Fianna Fail formally linked up with the SDLP the question remains as to what status the latter party's MPs would have. It would be impossible for Fianna Fail to allow its northern members to sit in a British parliament.

The prospect then of the Soldiers of Destiny marching across the border to become the hegemonic party of northern nationalism may be longer off than some of its northern followers and enthusiasts imagine.

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