Soldiers of Destiny are in no hurry to march north
Fianna Fail plans to fight elections here by 2016, centenary of the Easter Rising. But don't hold your breath - it may never happen, writes Henry McDonald
There will be a major cross-border political initiative in 2016 - but don't get too excited about it. No, it won't be the united Ireland which Sinn Fein once promised its base, but, as a target date for unification, the party has now, ahem, quietly set aside.
Instead, in terms of targets, the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising is the year Fianna Fail hopes to be organised in Northern Ireland.
According to one long-standing member of the Soldiers of Destiny, the Republic's largest party has taken the foot off the accelerator in the drive northwards.
"Forget about us organising for the 2011 Assembly elections in the north. Realistically speaking, we are talking at 2016 - at the earliest," he said yesterday.
The word "earliest" is crucial here, because it suggests Fianna Fail has slowed down moves towards taking part in election contests in the north.
There is evidence on the ground already in Northern Ireland that Fianna Fail does not want to be rushed headlong into standing as a full-blown political force up north.
In South Down there is a fledgling Fianna Fail organisation that - it can be now be revealed - has in recent weeks been irking the party's high command in Dublin after activists belonging to a local Fianna Fail forum (words are important here, again - note 'forum' instead of 'branch/cummann') started to leaflet the constituency and behave and act like a normal political party.
When the Dublin HQ heard about this from the SDLP in South Down, the party sent one of its emissaries north with a message. Which was that they were not to tread on the SDLP's territory and that Fianna Fail's central aim in the constituency was to see Margaret Ritchie's election to Westminster this May.
That senior source within Fianna Fail confirmed that its local forum in South Down has been "given the message loud and clear" that, as things stand, the party is not yet ready to operate as a normal political force and run for elections. Besides, as the source emphasised, Fianna Fail would never, ever stand for Westminster elections.
Given their determination not to allow anyone flying its banner to upset the SDLP, does that mean that Fianna Fail is edging closer to merger with the northern nationalist party? The answer - at least for the next number of years - is: probably not.
The election of Margaret Ritchie as SDLP leader undermined that faction of the party which has been enthusiastic about fusion with Fianna Fail. Although Ritchie is not herself viscerally anti-Fianna Fail (her family roots are in Cavan and many of them with links to the Soldiers of Destiny), some of those closest to her are hostile to the concept.
One of the party's rising stars, the South Belfast MLA Conal McDevitt, comes from an Irish Labour Party background, while Alex Atwood is also opposed to a formal merger with Fianna Fail.
The pro-Fianna Fail faction admit in private that the defeat of Alasdair McDonnell has certainly pushed down the line any chance of fusion in the near future.
Although Ritchie's deputy, Patsy McGlone, is known to be more enthusiastic about a merger with Fianna Fail, many in the SDLP calculate that it may no longer be in their interest to unite with the party founded by Eamon de Valera.
While a recent Belfast Telegraph opinion poll made depressing reading for the SDLP, on that one solution some activists envisage as salvation - merger with Fianna Fail - there is a feeling that the southern party is a damaged brand.
Fianna Fail lost one of its most able and colourful Cabinet ministers last month in order that its coalition with the Green Party survives.
Having got over three massive political hurdles - the second Lisbon referendum, the NAMA multi-billion euro rescue project and the most brutal budget in living memory - the Fianna Fail/Green Government was almost tripped up over a relatively minor issue.
Willie O'Dea lost his post as Defence Minister over false allegations he made against the brother of a Sinn Fein councillor in his native Limerick. Under pressure from the Greens, who were upset about the controversy, O'Dea decided it was better to resign in order to prevent the junior coalition partners panicking and then pulling down the Government.
The remarkable crisis that led to O'Dea's demise has two lessons for both the SDLP and Fianna Fail.
For the northern party the volatility of the coalition is a warning. Those lukewarm about, or vehemently opposed, to merger can point out with some justification that to throw your lot in with Fianna Fail now could be disastrous.
If another crisis leads to the coalition's collapse this year, judging by the opinion polls Fianna Fail will have a disastrous election and in all likelihood be out of power for a considerable period of time. Why therefore in these circumstances, the anti-Fianna Fail people in the SDLP contend, would the party want to be taken over by the southern political movement?
On the other hand, Fianna Fail has more challenging domestic problems to be dealing with that are more important to them than organising in the north.
While it tries to hold the fragile coalition together, Brian Cowen's Government is still wrestling with the chronic economic problems caused by the recession.
The banking system is not yet fixed and unemployment continues to rise.
The Taoiseach and his team will also face a number of reports on political corruption from the Republic's tribunals in coming weeks.
In many ways, therefore, Fianna Fail going north in 2016 is similar to the idea of a United Ireland by the 100th anniversary of the Rising.
It seems like a nice idea, an emotional aspiration that tugs at nationalist heart strings, but in the cold light of day is further away than some of its more zealous adherents imagine.