Fianna Fáil, the North and unintended consequence September 23, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The North.
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?