SDLP-Fianna Fail electoral pact promised beef ... but both sides ended up with egg on their faces
Last week's calamitous candidate announcement - rescinded within the hour - augurs badly for future co-operation between the parties, writes Alex Kane
When it was revealed, at the end of August, that the SDLP and Fianna Fail were discussing the potential for some sort of electoral pact, or merger, I wasn't particularly surprised.
The SDLP has had an awful time since 1998 (when it actually nudged ahead of the UUP in the Assembly election and became the largest party in terms of votes; the first time the primary unionist party had slipped behind a nationalist rival), but has since lost half their vote, all of their MPs and half of their MLAs.
The latest boundary proposals, which will see the number of MLAs reduced from 90 to 85, is likely to cost them another two MLAs. Fianna Fail, meanwhile, has gone from an average of 43% of the vote and 77-plus TDs, to 24% and 44 seats.
Both parties need a massive injection of electoral and political relevance. They need to do something which makes their existing voters, former voters and potential new voters sit up and take notice.
So, with Sinn Fein a huge threat to both of them and with the prospect of Irish unity not as distant as it seemed just three years ago, it makes sense for them to at least consider pooling their resources and talent.
In an interview with me in February 2014, Micheal Martin addressed the issue of contesting elections here: "The first phase of our engagement was policy. The next stage has to be electoral. But we have to be very incremental: it isn't going to be a big bang. We made mistakes before, saying that we were going north, but frankly, there wasn't anything behind it in terms of capacity. That won't happen under my leadership. When I make a step forward, it has to be with a bit of beef and bodies and a campaign plan."
Two months ago, it looked as though the talks with the SDLP were a way of addressing the beef, bodies and capacity issues. Coming north just to challenge the SDLP would probably have played into Sinn Fein's hands; and, by spreading the electoral choice across nationalism, may also have helped the DUP.
Also: a joint SDLP/Fianna Fail vehicle might have the potential to swing and galvanise voters in the event of a border poll; attracting some pro-unity voters who didn't buy into Sinn Fein's narrative, but who looked upon the SDLP as an irrelevance.
Yes, there would be problems in building a new all-Ireland electoral vehicle, but it was certainly an option worth exploring.
So, it was a big surprise when, on Thursday evening, Sorcha McAnespy was announced as Fianna Fail's candidate for next May's local government elections; standing for the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, of which she is presently an Independent member.
Two senior Fianna Fail figures - Senator Mark Daly and TD Eamon O Cuiv - were introduced as her "joint campaign managers".
Ms McAnespy added: "There is an appetite for change in Northern Ireland and there is an appetite, now more than ever, for Fianna Fail to contest elections in Northern Ireland."
Adding to the impression that Fianna Fail was now running its own show, Daly said he expected the launch to be the "first of many to come".
There was no specific mention of the SDLP, although it was reported that some SDLP supporters were at the launch.
Yet, within an hour, there was a statement from Fianna Fail HQ: "Despite some reports, the party has made no decision with regard to contesting the 2019 NI local elections. The party is continuing its discussions with the SDLP. It follows, then, that it has selected no candidate to contest these elections."
When I spoke to a Fianna Fail source on Saturday morning, he said there were "elements at the centre of the party who are totally focused on strategies that will make Micheal Martin Taoiseach; they look on all of this as a distraction. They are not interested. They have enough other things on their plate".
The problem now is that time is running out to get a deal in place for the elections. That will embolden those in the SDLP who oppose both an electoral pact and a formal merger.
Speaking on BBC NI's The View on Thursday evening, Claire Hanna made it very clear that she would not be comfortable - and unlikely to remain a member - if her party concluded a deal.
John Boyle, the SDLP mayor of Londonderry, told the BBC's Sunday Politics programme that he was a social democrat and would remain a social democrat.
According to pro-pact Fianna Fail sources, there are around 30 or so SDLP councillors who would be willing to run under a joint SDLP/Fianna Fail banner; but that leaves about half who wouldn't.
But if a pact was to lead to high-profile elected figures, like Hanna, leaving the party, it could have as damaging an impact as the departure of Lady Hermon had on the UUP at the time of the UCUNF (UUP/Conservative) deal in 2010.
Back in August, it had been hoped that a deal would be in place by now. It would be too soon to dismiss the prospect of a deal altogether, but it certainly looks much less likely than it did a few weeks ago.
If that is the case, then it is much worse news for the SDLP than for Fianna Fail.
The very fact that it agreed to talks was an admission from the SDLP that it had big problems in terms of role, relevance, purpose and direction. A deal would not, necessarily, have resolved all of those problems: indeed, the UCUNF project ended up doing the UUP enormous internal and electoral damage.
But, at the very least, the whole process of negotiations, followed by internal discussions about a possible deal, might have focused minds in the SDLP; particularly the minds of those who still don't understand exactly why their party was eclipsed and then pummelled by Sinn Fein.
It is now clear that there are important factions in both the SDLP and Fianna Fail who are opposed to a pact, or merger: and the dog's-dinner fiasco that was Thursday's "launch" has helped both those factions.
Colum Eastwood and Micheal Martin have been silent and Sorcha McAnespy has gone to ground.
It's still not entirely clear what happened on Thursday: who approved the launch; who appointed the campaign managers; why the leaders weren't involved; why the respective HQs seemed to know nothing; why it was done while both parties are still negotiating; why the candidate was "deselected" within an hour or so; and, crucially, how much damage has been done to both parties?
Ironically, the very process which was meant to show that both parties should be taken seriously again has done just the opposite.
None of the "beef" that Martin talked about in 2014: just a lot of egg over a lot of faces.