Alban Maginness: SDLP tie-up with Fianna Fail will alienate unionist opinion and cost party members ... it is a mistake
Partnership deal will fuel fears of a takeover and squander legacy of the Hume years, writes Alban Maginness
Sadly, the SDLP leadership has made a strategic error in its proposal to enter into a partnership with Fianna Fail. This alignment with Fianna Fail will result in the alienation, or even hostility, of the other democratic parties in the south. There is no way in which the Irish Labour Party, or Fine Gael, can ignore such a partisan alignment on policy issues.
John Hume, in all his years as leader of the SDLP, wisely avoided aligning the SDLP with any of the major political players in the south. By observing political neutrality, the party earned respect and support right across the varied spectrum of political opinion in the Republic. That was the right strategy then and should be the right strategy today.
Throughout many years of the Troubles and beyond, despite many difficulties, the SDLP skilfully maintained that balanced relationship with all the southern parties. In fairness to those parties, including Fianna Fail, they all contributed separately in a significant way to helping the north. It would, therefore, be difficult to distinguish among the parties as to who played a greater role in building peace.
One has only to think of the roles played by Bertie Ahern, Garret FitzGerald, Peter Barry and Dick Spring, to mention but a few. Why, therefore, should the SDLP be partisan and pick Fianna Fail to partner with today?
Accepting that we live in a rapidly changing political climate and that the SDLP needs to have a strategic role at the heart of Irish politics, why not partner with all the parties together in building a powerful joint-policy platform that prepares for the post-Brexit era and puts in place ideas that prepare this island for some form of political unity in the future? We know that we are in a period of ferment and change (not just due to Brexit) and that politics in Ireland will not stand still.
In the north, this proposed new alignment will lead to the bewilderment and alienation of party supporters and, indeed, party members. People will be confused as to whether this is a partnership, or something greater, such as a step towards merger with Fianna Fail in the near future. If it is the latter, then many members will become seriously worried about a Fianna Fail takeover.
Fianna Fail, outside some border areas, has little traction with the nationalist electorate. It could also impact negatively upon the unionist community, who will be apprehensive about any alignment with Fianna Fail.
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The SDLP is a unique political institution, founded in order to achieve a new politics, based on reform, reconciliation and eventual Irish reunification. The party's aim was to unite people, not territory, and was firmly wedded to democratic and parliamentary means.
Historically, it was a northern phenomenon arising out of the civil rights struggle of the late 1960s. The SDLP is a non-sectarian, social democratic party, at one with the Labour tradition of Ireland and Britain and European social democracy.
Throughout its 50-year history, it has been strongly committed to human rights, social democracy, the European ideal and, in particular, partnership between the nationalist and unionist political traditions. Through that crucial partnership, the party believed it could bring about a lasting reconciliation in Ireland.
And, while the SDLP operated electorally within the north, its vision was always beyond the narrow ground of the north, embracing all of Ireland.
The SDLP is the most successful political party in Ireland, because, through its vision, it has radically transformed politics on this island. Without the SDLP, there would not have been the Sunningdale Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, or, indeed, the Good Friday Agreement.
The SDLP is currently becalmed in the electoral doldrums, largely not of its own making, but through the development of a deeply polarised electorate that has evolved since the Good Friday Agreement, with one community fearful of the other, leading to a bleak sectarian deadlock at Stormont. The SDLP is a prisoner of that sectarianism and, for the moment, cannot escape that ugly reality.
But the party needs to stand firmly on its own two feet and remain true to its non-sectarian, social democratic ethos and exercise its historic role as a political catalyst and healer.
No other party, north or south, can build the necessary bridge to the unionist community and restore confidence in politics. But aligning itself solely with Fianna Fail will not assist this process.
But what should the SDLP do now? At its forthcoming special conference, the party should pause and think carefully about the road upon which the party should travel. Hopefully, it will decide to build a powerful partnership with all the democratic parties in the south.
But it should also consider how it can demolish the invisible wall that, infuriatingly, prevents a new and vital partnership with its unionist neighbours.