Former Westminster MP Eamonn DeValera
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Crossing the border must be a very strange experience for the SDLP. North of it, they’re a dying party, a party of the past, a party that one looks at and thinks one good cold snap in the winter and half their membership are off to that great count centre in the sky. It’s probably an unfair image, but that’s the image. Images of the SDLP on the telly are those of John Hume in the 1970s and maybe with David Trimble and Bono from 19 years ago. Go on, I dare you: name the last three leaders of the SDLP. There was Gerry Fitt, John Hume, then Mark Durkan, then…that woman? Your man with the head? Was there another woman? No? I had to look them up. If you want to know how far they’ve fallen, consider that in the Northern Assembly elections in 1998 the SDLP came first in first preference over every other party.
Now there’s talk of perhaps a merger with Fianna Fail, and when they come south, you could hardly blame them. Down here they’re welcomed onto the platform of a Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Labour ard fheis, and the response is crackling. Standing ovations. Smiles. People nodding approvingly at each other. Because the SDLP are the good guys. When those other fellas were taking up guns and balaclavas the SDLP stood firm and by the ballot. As we did down here. They’re our sort of people.
Could Fianna Fail assimilate them as the opening bid for the party’s entry into the politics of the north? It’s a high stakes gamble. Don’t forget, it won’t be going up against the DUP or UUP looking for their votes, at least, not initially. What is Fianna Fail’s pitch to nationalist or republican voters? In short, unlike the SDLP, it can tell nationalists in the north that it has been, along with Fine Gael, the legitimate leading voice of the Irish people in totality. Sinn Fein just can’t claim that, and northern voters know that too. Quite simply, Fianna Fail has more power than Sinn Fein, in Dublin, in London, in Brussels, in Washington. What’s the Sinn Fein argument against Fianna Fail candidates? No to Dublin rule? Go home to where you came from? Get back across the border and mind your own business? Don’t forget, in the North Sinn Fein are the establishment party who seem to have been in government forever.
Fianna Fail is a populist catch-all party. In its heyday it was almost unique in western democracy as the party that won a plurality of the vote in every single socio-economic group and geographical region. The idea that Fianna Fail could look at half the electorate of Northern Ireland and just write them off goes against the party’s driving credo, There Be Voters In Them Thar Hills!
Could Fianna Fail even pick up soft unionist transfers? Short term, probably not, but picture the long term. Fianna Fail back in government in the south and Prince Charles or even King William and Queen Kate visiting the republic and suddenly nice respectable unionist businessmen and their wives getting invites from the local Fianna Fail candidate to come to the Aras and meet their wonderful majesties. A lovely day is had by all and she looked so beautiful and the President of Eire was there too and it was all just lovely and we met Mr Martin of Fianna Fail who introduced us to his majesty and it was all very tasteful and he seems like a very nice man.
Don’t forget, that’s what Fianna Fail does. It’s like Al Pacino in that film where he plays the devil. They figure out what you want, and unlike the other fellas, it’s been absolutely ages since Fianna Fail shot anybody. That’s not to say there won’t be challenges. What should Fianna Fail do if it wins a seat in the Westminster parliament? Not taking the seat seems, well, silly. But it also puts the party in an awkward position if it’s in government in the Dail and facing the British government in the Commons. But, as Dev discovered with the oath in 1927, Fianna Fail is nothing if not very bendy on these issues. They can respectfully renounce the oath before taking it, and follow the Scottish Parliament tradition of pledging allegiance to the people who sent them there. Fianna Fail can also announce, to avoid causing friction between Dublin and London, that they will only vote on issues affecting Northern Ireland. Which will allow Fianna Fail to not have a policy on NATO or Trident, which would be handy.
There’s also the other issue about the DUP vs Fianna Fail in Westminster. The DUP are in serious danger, as the dominant party of Ulster unionism, of equating Northern Irish unionism with keeping the hated Tories in power. Juxtapose that with a few nice gay-friendly charming young male and female Fianna Fail MPs being all nice and respectful. That’s the thing about the DUP: they may finally convince a large section of England that if it’s unionism in Northern Ireland that keeps the Tories in, maybe that Jeremy Corbyn is right about getting out of Ireland all together. The sheer comedy value of the more the English see Ulster unionism through a DUP prism, they less they feel committed to it would be, let’s be honest, delicious.
Ideally, Fianna Fail MPs would be at their most comfortable sitting with the SNP, who’d probably be delighted to have them, but that would rub the Dublin-London relationship just a little too much the wrong way. But after getting using to pronouncing Fianna Fail, and the inevitable Tory MPs rhyming it with sail and thinking they’re the first guy to come up with that, the DUP might find having Fianna Fail there to be deeply troubling. A Fianna Fail presence would kill the idea that a united Ireland is handing over good decent Brits to some backward land. If anything, I suspect quite a few Brits listening to Fianna Fail MPs espousing the party’s moderate conservative but let’s not get weird about it pragmatism might even think they’d like to vote for them.
To cap it all, wouldn’t it be funny if the UK introduced a Kevin O’Higgins style law, as occurred in the Free State after the murder of the justice minister, saying that you have to take your seat or lose it. That if Sinn Fein don’t take the seats, they could be awarded to the runner up. The Tories won’t do it now, for obvious reasons, but at some stage in the future you could imagine a Fianna Fail foreign minister whispering it into the ear of his British counterpart. It could put Sinn Fein in a pickle. Yes, they could go to Westminster and do a “Paisley and the Pope” and make a big song and dance. But let’s not forget: Sinn Fein have two audiences. That carry-on will go down well with their core support in the north.
But in the south, that goes against Sinn Fein’s pitch as the not-Anglophobic party of the progressive future. In short, Fianna Fail heading north will be a game of three dimensional chess, with every move having the potential to have unforeseen consequences on one of the other boards.