This article appeared On broadsheet.ie on Jan 29th 2019
In the aftermath of the disastrous June 2016 Brexit referendum result, a result we should remember went 56:44 in favour of Remain in Northern Ireland, I started talking here about the need for the political system on this island, most particularly in Northern Ireland, to start catching up with the changing political landscape.
In a range of articles from late 2016 onwards I frequently quoted from a series of thoughtful speeches from the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood. As well as talking about the current crisis he was also looking to the longer-term implications of the Brexit vote, in particular the difference between the results in England those in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Eastwood was repeatedly saying that Brexit had consequences for all of this island because Brexit meant that the English had chosen, albeit narrowly, a very different future from that of the Irish people, north and south.
Thanks to the Brexit vote and the subsequent public discourse there was now a distinct divergence in both economic positioning and political values between these two islands, with England seeing its future outside the EU and Ireland seeing its future firmly inside it.
These post Brexit complexities, economic, political and constitutional, were going to require political parties to map out and shape the ideas and policies needed – but given all island nature of the problems and the dire state of Northern Irelands party politics wouldn’t that require new party political structures?
But I did more than write about it here. I ensured that Eastwood’s analysis and thinking was brought to the personal attention of the Fianna Fáil leadership.
I felt that the implicit direction of Eastwood’s logic was clear, but I could also see that it was by no means certain or easy.
Let me digress here tell you a little about my own political history. I have long been an inadvertently public advocate of Fianna Fáil becoming a 32-county party. The inadvertent bit was courtesy of the Wikileaks dump of US Embassy cables in late December 2010. Amongst the cables was a US embassy note from my February 2005 conversation with an embassy official accurately quoting me speaking in favour of Fianna Fáil running in the North. This made its way into the Belfast Telegraph.
A few months later I was asked by Fianna Fáil HQ to evaluate the progress made in developing Fianna Fáil in Northern Ireland to date (the party had established a network of six county forums in Northern Ireland in 2009) and to examine future options.
I entitled my evaluation report: When not If to signal my strong belief that Fianna Fáil contesting elections in the North was inevitable, the only issue was when. Indeed, in the opening paragraphs I quoted Éamon de Valera’s November 1926 comment that Fianna Fáil was:
“…intended to be an All-Ireland organisation… the time to start organising in the Six Counties would depend on conditions there.”
So, fast forward to last Thursday’s press conference by the leaders of the SDLP and Fianna Fáil announcing their two parties’ planned partnership.
Is this what I had envisaged or desired back in 2005, 2011 or 2017?
To be honest, it was not. Sadly, it falls well short of it. What was announced was almost as minimalist at the launch setting.
But am I against it? Certainly not.
I would have much preferred if both parties had gone far further in their ambitions and set out a clear timeline for the future of this relationship, but I am satisfied that this is a sufficiently solid first step. What matters are the next steps.
I was pleased to see that the initiative will be driven by policies and ideas rather than just organisation. Yes, developing organisationally is important, but having your politics driven by ideas and debate is far preferable to having it driven by organisation or even spin and presentation.
Nonetheless there are still organisational issues which the Fianna Fáil side needs to address. There are many Fianna Fáil members in Northern Ireland, including a prominent elected councillor. For most of the last decade the William Drennan Fianna Fáil cumann in Queens University has been one of the biggest political groups on campus. What is the role for the hundreds of existing party members in the North in this partnership? What should anyone who wants to join and vote Fianna Fáil in the North do over the coming months and years?
Micheál Martin and his advisers need to come up with clear answers to these questions – hint, they are in internal party papers I have written over the past few years.
That said, I was very encouraged that Martin’s speech made it clear that Fianna Fáil Oireachtas members and SDLP elected representatives “will begin their work within weeks” on both Brexit and Northern Ireland’s future relationship with the EU and that he was committed to widening the policy partnership agenda thereafter.
The lukewarm, somewhat negative response to the announcement is disappointing, but not too shocking given that it was neither flesh nor fowl for so many folks.
I can understand why some in both parties feel that the two leaders could have gone further, especially given some of the briefings and “informed sources” speculation from the Dublin end over recent months, but last Thursday’s announcement does not rule out any of that.
What is equally understandable, but a lot less forgivable is the whining and kvetching by assorted Irish Labour party apparatchiks in strategically placed op-eds.
I know there are left leaning members of the SDLP who would prefer to see an alignment with what is left of the left of the Irish Labour Party…. but the fact that Labour has been slow to move or is not sufficient reason for all of politics to stand still. Just as it is smug to think that the SDLP should disband to make sure that some folks are not discommoded – bear in mind that 11 out of the SDLP’s 12 MLAs were at last Thursday’s announcement.
Just as daft is the idea that Unionists, be they UUP or DUP, will be affronted or riled by the announcement. The Unionists I know, and I know a good few elected ones, largely see the partnership as positive, though they complain that it probably does not go as far as they had expected. There are many progressive and forward-thinking Unionists, including in the DUP, who grasp that NI politics needs to move on and mature. My good friend Mick Fealty discusses this outlook here better than I can.
Finally, the merger word. Let me let you into a secret, in almost every note, analysis or recommendation I have written on this topic for the past decade, I have avoided the word ‘merger’. I dislike the word and understand why both parties avoided it too. What our all island politics needs is an emerging policy driven focus, rather than an organisational driven administrative merger.
If what comes out of last Thursday’s announcement is less a merger and more a truly emerging partnership that can produce workable all-island policies on bread and butter issues that people north and south care about, then I am for it, bare bricks and all.