Tom Griffen (London, The Green Ribbon): While the London government battles with the financial crisis and demands for a referendum on Europe, both of which strike at the Prime Minister's bid to be trusted, the ground is shifting elsewhere, more slowly - but perhaps more permanently. I suspect this often happens: a major headline crisis diverts attention from other processes and when the crisis is over the landscape has changed for other reasons as well. Who, in London is thinking about the relationship of Dublin and Belfast? But for the first time Ireland’s largest and governing party, Fianna Fáil is set to organize in Northern Ireland, and from an until now discounted direction another arrow is being prepared against the United Kingdom as we know it.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said today. “It is time now for this Party to play its full role, to take its proper place, in this new politics - in this New Ireland.” He was talking to delegates to a parliamentary party meeting at Druid’s Glen in Co Wicklow.
“Only now that the two great traditions on this island are reconciled, can we take this historic move. To that end, today I am announcing that Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party, will now move to develop a strategy for organising on a thirty two county basis.”
A committee headed by Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern will examine the way forward, the Taoiseach announced. “We will act gradually and strategically. We are under no illusions. It will not be easy. It will challenge us all. But I am confident we will succeed.”
One immediate problem is the position of the SDLP, who have long been viewed as the representatives of the southern establishment in the North. A merger between the two parties is one possibility. However, unlike the centre-right Fianna Fáil, the SDLP is a member party of the Socialist International with roots in the 1960s civil rights movement. As such it is nominally a sister organization of the Irish Labour Party, but this obstacle may be removed by Labour’s own moves to develop its northern organisation.
Fianna Fáil shares common republican roots with Sinn Féin, a fact which has only sharpened their rivalry. Fianna Fáil succeeded in reversing some of Sinn Féin’s recent gains in the Republic at this year’s election. On its home turf, Sinn Féin will be a much tougher nut to crack. Electorally, Sinn Féin could hardly welcome the arrival in the North of a challenger with as formidable a reputation as Fianna Fáil. Yet that challenge is inevitable if Sinn Féin’s strategy of all-Ireland integration is to succeed.
For that very reason, unionists are likely to wary of the prospect of a 32-county Fianna Fáil, in spite of Bertie Ahern’s increasingly cordial relations with Ian Paisley. It would unwise to expect Ahern’s initiative to bear fruit quickly. A number of practical questions have yet to be seriously considered, not least the issue Westminster elections. However, there are a growing number of reasons to believe that Fianna Fáil’s commitment to Irish unity is not merely the cynical rhetoric it has often been regarded as.
Finance Minister Brian Cowen announced a major package of cross-border investment earlier this year. Fianna Fáil has also supported the campaign for a corporation tax cut in the North. This gesture is all the more significant given the North’s emergence as a competitor, exemplified by Aer Lingus’ departure from Shannon for Belfast.
Today’s development may mark the moment that politics began to catch up with the emergence of the all-Island economy.
Moderator: Tom now has a couple of additions to this great story back on Green Ribbon