Which way forward for the SDLP

Tom Griffin
18 May 2008

Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): The possibility that Ireland's largest political party, Fianna Fáil, will move into the North has provoked a range of different responses in recent weeks.

In Friday's Irish Independent, Maurice Hayes warned against any moves that could destabilise the political settlement:

A decision by Fianna Fail to organise in the North would bring pressure on other parties to do so too, and UK parties as well. While this might not be the worst outcome in the long-term, in the short and medium-term it can only risk fragmentation of what is still a fragile construct. More importantly it could break the cross-party consensus on the North in the Oireachtas which prevented the issue becoming a political football in southern domestic politics. This consensus, which can be traced back to Lynch and Hillery through Garrett Fitzgerald and Dick Spring to Albert Reynolds, Bruton and Bertie, was an important stabilising factor over the years. John Hume, in particular was careful to keep his lines open to all parties in the South.

Cross-party support for the SDLP, a key element of this southern consensus, looks increasingly as it will be replaced by a closer relationship between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil. Conall McDevitt argues that this would be a surrender of the SDLP's traditions:

The SDLP is a member of the Party of European Socialists and the Socialist International alongside many of the world's most successful parties. If the SDLP were ever to give up this membership they would be surrendering the right to call themselves progressives. They would also be handing Sinn Fein the keys to one of the most influential and powerful political groups in the world. For be under no illusion, SF would apply to join the PES and SI the day after the SDLP left.

This is an interesting piece of speculation given last year's Seanad deal between Sinn Fein and the Irish Labour Party. However, arguments about the SDLP's own Labour credentials receive short shrift from Brian Feeney in the Irish News (hat tip - Slugger):

There is no 'Labour element' in the SDLP. It's a middle-class Catholic party. The party has no infrastructure in Newry. It has no members at all in most working-class districts of Belfast. We know Derry is just dying to go Fianna Fail. Besides, the SDLP leadership will not go out of business only to become the northern wing of a Stickie-led Labour Party in Dublin. They hope linking up with Fianna Fail will offer life after death to the party leaders but a link with Labour would be what Ian Paisley likes to call "a Sadducee's grave" – no resurrection.

What's holding up a decision, apart from Durkan's inability to act decisively? Timing is one issue. The right moment to announce a FF/SDLP candidate for Europe next year but one who won't go down in humiliating defeat to Sinn Fein on the first outing. Secondly, since Fianna Fail will not contest British elections what on earth will become of the SDLP's Westminster seats? Alasdair McDonnell has long been an ardent advocate of Fianna Fail but he couldn't call himself a Fianna Fail candidate in the next British general election.

The Westminster issue may yet prove a significant obstacle to a merger, but the alternatives for the SDLP look uncomfortably like a prescription for more of the same.

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