Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Underwhelming SDLP-Fianna Fail deal risks pleasing no one

By Suzanne Breen

For an initiative that aims to change the face of politics on this island, the SDLP-Fianna Fail partnership seems distinctly underwhelming.

These parties have laboured over finding a joint political way forward for years.

Their common enemy is Sinn Fein, but instead of the roar of a lion, what we have heard so far is the squeak of a mouse.

Colum Eastwood and Micheal Martin are first-class media performers and their sale of whatever they are offering will be pitch-perfect, but the product appears lame and lacklustre.

The launch of a new cross-border party, now that would be exciting. But "a shared policy platform"? Hardly.

It certainly won't have Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill quaking in their boots.

The SDLP is deeply split on a merger with Fianna Fail, which is why the 'M-word is omitted and the P-word features prominently.

Yet this halfway house is in danger of pleasing no one.

Those strongly in favour of a merger are disappointed the announcement doesn't go far enough. They wanted something big, bold and inspirational.

Those against it believe it offers the worst of both worlds. It could alienate traditional SDLP supporters, who will believe the party has given up, yet it's so wishy-washy it won't attract new voters.

With the local government elections just four months away, many councillors are nervous about the new move. There are concerns about the effect it will have on the transfers from non-nationalist voters that are vital in some areas.

Yet the caution from both party leaders is understandable. Colum Eastwood knows the SDLP's glory days aren't returning and it has to leave the stage. But it's debatable whether he would win enough support for a full-blown merger at a special party conference.

Getting back into power in Dublin is the priority for Micheal Martin and the risks of going head-to-head with Sinn Fein on this side of the border seem too high for him at the moment.

Still, the faint-heartedness is off-putting. Former Sinn Fein TD Peadar Tobin has hit the ground running since he left that party two months ago and launched his own. He has travelled the length and breadth of the island, holding public meetings, and will stand candidates in May's local government poll.

As news of the limited SDLP-Fianna Fail partnership broke on Tuesday, he tweeted: "For 20 years @fiannafailparty stated it plans to contest elections in the North and tonight we learn they won't be contesting the local elections in 2019. Looking forward to reading Mícheal Martin's new book How to Never Make a Political Decision."

The danger for Fianna Fail and the SDLP is that by the time they're ready to commit and say 'I do', the nationalist congregation will have nodded off.

Belfast Telegraph

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