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Fianna Fáil, the North and unintended consequence September 23, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The North.
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Now that the first flush of enthusiasm for the idea of Fianna Fáil organising in Northern Ireland has dissipated further reflection has led to some interesting points being raised. First up the Sunday Business Post notes that during Freshers Week in various colleges and universities FF will have a recruiting presence. However no cumainn will be formed, individuals will merely be ‘individual members of the party’. A dispiriting situation to be in, no doubt. Hard to see that attracting the hordes.

Meanwhile, the SBP Belfast correspondent suggests a dynamic which might give pause for thought. At very best, even in the context of an FF/SDLP merger it appears unlikely that such an organisation could outpoll Sinn Féin. The psychological effects of coming in second as representative to Nationalism and Republicanism would have its own significance. No one will deny that the recent election in the Republic was for Sinn Féin enormously problematic, while not quite the disaster it has been painted as. The gloss of an almost unbroken succession of electoral advances in the North suddenly lost its lustre. Fallibility, even vulnerability, became apparent with the loss of a seat rather than the acquisition of two or three new ones. And this was a surprise. An enormous surprise for many, both inside the party and outside it.
The attendant crowing may be misplaced. SF occupies a niche, and has a discipline and persistence which I suspect will see it do better in the future. Not hugely better, but that couple or even more seats are still there for the taking. And the deal with Labour has clearly broken some unwritten block on any communications or accords with other parties. Strangely there has been very little written about the reports in the media that Fine Gael and Labour are willing to share some speaking time with Sinn Féin [this according to a report on RTÉ news this Thursday]. Small acorns… etc, etc. This ‘normalisation’, as it were, is probably indicative of the future. Opposition has a dynamic all its own and leads to, well, more unintended consequence. No doubt Bertie Ahern thought that cutting SF off as regards speaking rights or group rights was a clever move, and perhaps it was. But in a Dáil denuded of many oppositional voices by their co-option within our Coalition of all the talents almost inevitable momentum would build up between Labour and Sinn Féin, both left of centre, both damaged somewhat by the election to deal with one another – if only to hold what they retained. That Fine Gael is also party to this – even at arms length – is unsurprising, at least to those of us who saw a similar situation in the 1992-1994 period from within Democratic Left.

And for the sharper eyed amongst us there were the photographs (see above) from the SF meeting in Howth this week of Oireachtas [and wrongly reported Assembly and European Parliament representatives present - thanks Wednesday for the correction].

One of the most entertaining, albeit tragic, aspects of Irish politics has been a simple minded belief that some are beyond political redemption. This is a line trotted out by those such as our newest Taoiseach’s nominee, the good Senator Harris. There are pools of such thinking within all the parties, including FF, FG and Labour. But… it isn’t true. Time and again we have seen how political parties linked to Republicanism have entered constitutional politics. Fianna Fáil, Clann na Poblachta, Sinn Féin – The Workers’ Party and now Sinn Féin. All had legacies, for better or worse [and such legacies aren't entirely restricted to Nationalism or Republicanism on this island].

So what about Fianna Fáil? I think they’re moving onto dangerous ground – although if they were to actually proceed towards full representation that would broadly be a good thing. It is hard to envisage a ‘big bang’ speedy transition from SDLP to Fianna Fáil/SDLP or just Fianna Fáil. Neither option would be sufficient to encompass all within the SDLP. A split, however minor, might take place, and one suspects that would be far from the sort of introduction to the North FF would want. But even were things to go smoothly it seems enormously unlikely that a Southern party could expect to wrest SF from its preeminent position in Nationalism and Republicanism. How does that play in the South? Granted FF is not quite the electoral colossus it once was, but it retains a formidable reputation. I spoke of managing expectations in relation to this issue previously. Here FF would have to significantly ratchet down those expectations. And that too has problems, because as with SF once you lose some of the gloss it is hard to get it back.

Of course, if FF are sensible they’ll be planning for the long term. But politics is a predictable business and those involved want success. Electoral success, and electoral success with a view to exercising power in some form or another. Already one hostage has been lost to fortune with the news that FF wouldn’t sit in Westminster. That may have some impact both positive and negative on FF in the future. But doesn’t it look as if the Nationalist/Republican ‘centre ground’ may become all too crowded, because at base what huge distinctiveness will FF bring that either the SDLP or SF already contain? The question seems unanswerable. And in that context does this not just simply seem to be a solution to a problem which does not actually exist?

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1. Wednesday - September 23, 2007

WBS, the Howth meeting was just an Oireachtas planning meeting. We have these every year and Adams wouldn’t normally be present. No other northern reps were there either.

On the FF issue I’d be surprised if they do anything in the Six Counties, at least for the forseeable future. There isn’t really that much in it for them apart from it sounds good to that element of their support who still care about the North.

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2. sonofstan - September 23, 2007

Spotted Mary- Lou in Dublin Central yesterday for the first time since the election, collecting signatures for a petition on disability rights; good tactic that – find an issue that no one can possibly disagree with and work it….

They were ranged – ML and her cohort – outside Phibsboro’ SC and as it happens they didn’t catch me on my way into Tesco, leaving me with loads of time to think up a response if they got me on the way out -‘nice to see SF doing something for the disabled having been the cause of so much disability?’ perhaps; or my old favourite, when approached by shinners ‘no thanks, I’m a socialist……..’ think i mumbles a version of the last one in the end, leaving a slightly baffled looking ML in my wake…

I take your point WBS, and intellectually i probably even agree with you, with them and all, but i have to admit that I still have a visceral dislike of them that probably beats even my reaction to PDs for venom – I can’t help, sir, its my upbringing….. but seriously, I’m not the only middle aged leftie i know who reacts this way, which makes me think that labour would want to be careful not to alienate its already anorexic core with too many overtures in that direction.

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3. WorldbyStorm - September 23, 2007

That’s interesting Wednesday. The spin in the media was that reps from the North were there. I can see why MLM would be there actually. I also think you’re right that it is unlikely much will happen on the FF front.

sonofstan, I can understand that response, but… as the old saying goes, context is all. And I needn’t point out certain contradictions in any labour response…

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4. sonofstan - September 24, 2007

Not sure what context you’re pointing me towards …..
BTW, did you see Ivan Cooper on the Politics Show (Beeb NI) broadly welcoming the FF takeover/ merger of the party he helped found, and dismissing the SD and L bits of their name – and the links with Labour here and in Britain – as something Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt had insisted on; so in the long run (admittedly, a very long run), the NILP, and the tenuous legacy of non- sectarian, democratic socialism in the North gets sacrificed on the republican altar.

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5. splinteredsunrise - September 24, 2007

my old favourite, when approached by shinners ‘no thanks, I’m a socialist……..’

An even better one is ‘no thanks, I’m a republican’ – not one of my own, but I’ve heard it more than once.

I reckon there’s always going to be a kind of sociological space for a nationalist party that isn’t SF, but I can’t see what would possess anybody in the North to positively vote FF unless there was a big shift on the SDLP’s part – either the SDLP goes for a merger or the SDLP goes into meltdown and FF takes over the remnant.

Oddly, even with the modest expectations of Labour in the North, I think they might be better at establishing a niche in their own right. There’s enough of a residual Labourite or even DL milieu in certain areas to make a few councillors a realistic possibility.

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6. WorldbyStorm - September 24, 2007

sonofstan, re republican alters that of course depends on whether one considers the SDLP to have been an SD or L party. The Devlin and Fitt parts were gone a long time ago I suspect. I often think the emphasis on same for most was a sort of ‘progressivism’ to distinguish it from the other great nationalist parties the UUP and DUP, hence the emphasis on Europe, etc, etc. But it’s a patina really, probably always was for many, if not all. And the non-sectarian appeal of the SDLP wasn’t huge. As others have said, it was effectively the old Natioanlist party (well not quite, but close enough in terms of support) fitted out in new garb. In a way I prefer the current situation with the DUP and SF in power. At least one knows exactly what one is getting and what is represented. I think its a better basis for communication at least for the short to medium term.

splinteredsunrise, that’s an interesting thought. BUt a few councillors? Sort of low level isn’t it?

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7. sonofstan - September 24, 2007

You’re right about the SDLP of course.

Haven’t time now, but just quickly; perhaps one possible positive consequence of the outcome of the GFA – and it was the outcome it seemed designed to produce – is that it has squeezed the edges; there’s little real chance of either SF or the DUP being outflanked the way they outflanked the SDLP and UUP respectively, meaning that, as the novelty of home rule wears off and people become disenchanted with the hacks in Stormont – even if they are ‘their’ hacks – the only possible ground for opposition may actually be either from the left or right as normally construed………

And a last thought; as FF wades in to save the SDLP , would FG consider a similar gesture on behalf of the UUP? perhaps not.

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8. splinteredsunrise - September 24, 2007

As far as Labour goes, Langhammer has set his sights on picking up a clutch of council seats when local government is rejigged in 2009. I think that’s realistic – Labour candidates always do well in Newtownabbey, and there might be a possibility of tapping into bits of the old WP base in places like Craigavon and Dungannon.

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