Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: SDLP deserves a better political legacy than simply fading away ... realignment with Fianna Fail is one possible solution

But both parties need to fast-track their discussions, or call them off completely. Dithering and posturing helps no one, writes Tom Kelly

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

What is important is what is happening to Ireland today.

Yes, we can look at the past, but Brexit is happening here today, US protectionism is happening today, rising extremism is happening today.

The decision, for me, was very simple - who is the most closely aligned to my politics who I believe are taking those challenges very seriously, who are coming up with ideas to take on these challenges and opportunities?"

These are the words of Stephen Donnelly, TD for Wicklow and one-time co-founder of the Social Democrats, when he was asked why he was switching his allegiance to Fianna Fail in 2016. Donnelly, a one-time vocal critic of Fianna Fail, is now one of its front-bench spokespersons.

Soon, that question will surface for members of the SDLP, particularly those who are elected. It will emerge whether or not the SDLP merges into, is taken over by, or ignored by Fianna Fail.

Fianna Fail put itself on the hook by announcing that it would enter northern politics by the local government elections of 2019. That is now less than a year away.

Both the SDLP and Fianna Fail have been having talks, but exactly who has been doing the talking and about what is unclear.

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So far, only one senior SDLP MLA has spoken against even the concept of any such merger, or realignment, between the SDLP and Fianna Fail.

Some in the SDLP would prefer realignment, if there has to be one, to be with Irish Labour. The problem with that option is that it's akin to surviving the Titanic to hitch a ride on the Lusitania.

The only Irish party in worse electoral shape than the SDLP is the Irish Labour Party. With one notable exception, the strongest proponents of the link with Irish Labour have been among the weakest SDLP representatives at the polls.

The commentariat that mostly opposes an SDLP realignment with Fianna Fail tends to be among the harshest critics of both parties, so they are hardly useful as a touchstone of nationalist opinion.

It's been clear for some time that there has been an opening for an alternative electoral offering other than Sinn Fein and the SDLP. The SDLP's electoral decline has not all been down to Sinn Fein.

Tens of thousands of nationalist voters have simply stayed away from the polls.

While the current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is extremely popular in Northern Ireland among younger voters, because of his obvious commitment on issues of equality, Fine Gael, on the other hand, is like a stranger in a foreign land to many northern nationalists.

Sinn Fein calls about vote-splitting wear thin, when that party regularly split the nationalist vote to keep Enoch Powell and Jim Nicholson in office.

Some SDLP members have reservations about any potential merger with Fianna Fail, but their arguments don't stack up. If the SDLP leadership was the midwife to the Irish peace process, then Fianna Fail, under Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, were the godparents. Fianna Fail's commitment to Northern Ireland while in government is unquestionable.

It is more than reasonable for SDLP members to expect that any new arrangement would see the proposed political entity underpinned not solely by common economic and social policies, but also a demonstrable commitment to social democratic principles.

The pedigree and DNA of the SDLP is an actual attribute to Fianna Fail and having some semblance of an organisation on the ground in Northern Ireland is better than none.

Electorally speaking, the SDLP brand is reducing in value with every election that passes. Of course, there will always be those who will prefer to remain a little fish in a small, but very well-known, pond, but small fish tend to get eaten up.

Any potential merger, or realignment, should be seen by both parties as an opportunity to get rid of the electoral deadwood in the SDLP. Unfortunately, some of that deadwood fancies being re-coated with a Fianna Fail logo.

Neither Colum Eastwood nor Micheal Martin are rushing into any deal, though time is running out. Political procrastination has caused frustration for some elements within Fianna Fail. An expression of this was the 'Yellowpack' launch by TD Eamon O Cuiv of the so-called first Northern Ireland Fianna Fail candidate for local government, Sorcha McAnespy, conveniently bypassing such normal niceties such as a selection process.

The stunt, even if well-meaning, was both embarrassing and foolhardy. It was clearly a duo run by Senator Mark Daly and the maverick Eamonn O Cuiv. O Cuiv, the grandson of De Valera, is a constant thorn in the side of Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, but he represents everything that modern Fianna Fail is not. O Cuiv is a Back to the Future-type of politician - the future being somewhere in the 1950s.

Both O Cuiv and the articulate and ambitious Daly appear to have made a major miscalculation and have now paid a high price after O Cuiv was sacked from the Fianna Fail front bench and Daly was demoted as deputy leader of Fianna Fail in the Seanad and as a foreign affairs spokesman.

Fianna Fail is not called the Soldiers of Destiny for nothing; it is highly disciplined and places a high value on loyalty to its leader. O Cuiv, a long-term TD, has, by his actions, only served to emphasise just how peripheral a figure he is within Fianna Fail.

Political realignment of some sort is inevitable for the SDLP. Conferences are getting smaller and the audiences are getting older. The party has suffered several dozen rehabilitation attempts and at least six strategic reviews.

A whole tier of representation has been wiped out from Westminster. European representation is long gone. The Assembly group could fill the table at the Last Supper.

There are now more SDLP councillors on the Causeway and Glens Council than on Belfast City Council. Only Newry, Mourne and Down remains nominally a SDLP stronghold.

Each year, SDLP strategists and grandees hoped that the natural cycle of politics would see a return of the party's fortunes. However, 18 years on, that has proved to be one more huge myth-buster.

The SDLP decline has been steady since 2001. Not even the party's credentials on Europe and Brexit have resulted in any electoral lift.

Sometimes, the SDLP is seen as the least-worst option on the ballot paper.

That said, none of the above takes away from the fact that the SDLP is full of principled and brave people.

It's that tenacity to hang in there that keeps just over 90,000 voters on-side.

Brexit, RHI and the collapse at Stormont means that Northern Ireland is now a cul- de-sac for most of the nationalist community. Those with political, economic and social aspirations are feeling the pull of gravity towards Dublin and the more liberal, pluralist and confident citizens of the Republic of Ireland.

Making Northern Ireland work appears to be an impossible task, with the strangle-holds on progressive politics by misuse of petitions of concern and the increased political polarisation, which fuels and maintains sectarianism.

Truth is, the labours of the SDLP and those who support them deserves a better legacy than simply fading away.

The prospect of re-alignment under a progressive leadership and a more social democratic Fianna Fail may be one possible solution.

To make this work, both parties need to fast-track their discussions, or call them off completely. Dithering and posturing doesn't help the confidence of either side.

Either way, Fianna Fail should come north.

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