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A smallish holiday caravan of reaction? Éamon Ó Cuív looks towards a future Fianna Fáil/UUP coalition in the North February 27, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Northern Ireland, The North, Unionism.
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And so this is what it comes to when you address Ógra Fianna Fáil. As reported in the Irish Times (which is going through a redesign, a reformatting and an increase in price this week, to no clear purpose that I can make out):

THE ULSTER Unionist Party (UUP) will consider Fianna Fáil as future coalition partners in Northern Ireland in years to come, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív has predicted.

Fianna Fáil, which recently started cumainn in the University of Ulster in Derry and Queens University in Belfast, is currently examining options for development in the North.

It’s quite a leap into the unknown.

Mr Ó Cuív rejected the argument put forward by some in the party that it should establish grassroots organisations in Northern Ireland, but not actually contest elections. Fianna Fáil could very quickly, he said, face applications for membership from people who were already elected to bodies in Northern Ireland and who would want to run again.

“We could find ourselves in a situation where we are confronted by Northern elections in a short time after organising there.”

He noted that Ulster Unionist Party leader Reg Empey was the only senior Unionist politician to criticise openly Fianna Fáil’s Northern expansion.

Which, it has to be said, does present at least some problems, doesn’t it? On the other hand, isn’t this rather fantastical. I’ve mentioned before how I suspect it would take a considerable length of time for Fianna Fáil to operate successfully in the terra incognito North of the border. That is, assuming it can operate at all. The example of the Northern Ireland Conservative Party – that exotic bloom translated into the so far unyielding soil of the six counties – hardly gives comfort to those eager to progress the national agenda by cross border political means. Of course the NICP was, arguably, a bit too exotic. Fianna Fáil at least has the qualification of coming from this island and that border is fairly permeable.

Despite this, Mr Ó Cuív, who is Éamon de Valera’s grandson, said: “The question that Ulster Unionists will be asking is that if they are bound to share power with a nationalist party, would they prefer it to be Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or do they think that the SDLP can reverse the tide.”

He believed that the Ulster Unionist Party could see Fianna Fáil “as the favoured party. The answer to this is not black and white,” he told the Ógra Fianna Fáil conference.

Fianna Fáil should not limit its catchment just to nationalist voters who supported Sinn Féin, or the SDLP, or who did not vote at all.

Still, why the Ulster Unionists? Why not the DUP? Or is that a bridge too far for Fianna Fáil. And yet, one might suggest that the DUP had less historical baggage as regards Stormont than the UUP, and arguably a greater – albeit newfound – appetite for economic and political pragmatism that would chime well with that of Fianna Fáil. But of course the DUP has taken up with Sinn Féin, so that option is off the table for the moment. Whether this indicates some calculation by FF that the big soggy centre of NI politics will swing UUPwards in the future is an interesting thought to contemplate, but I doubt it.

And yet, then again, why not the UUP? Mild, centrist, polite, used in a former incarnation to government and to all the messy compromises that come with government. Able to forge and use a cross class coalition of interests for the best part of forty years. Less in thrall to the religious dimension than the DUP, but still aware of and able to play to that dimension. And how convenient that it should slip the shackles of the Orange Order. Yes. That would do nicely when one thinks about.

That we are talking at base about parties of the centre, centre/right, does not appear to faze Ó Cuív one iota. After all, the UUP has – despite something of a liberal strand – never been recognisably ‘progressive’ in any meaningful sense. And one might argue that, ironically, this makes it a very typical Irish political party indeed. The DUP, despite having a more populist and working class base perhaps makes fewer concessions still to the centre left. And that too places it firmly within a spectrum of broadly unsurprising political activity found on this island.

Also, ironically, despite the jibe that class always lost out to national identity in Irish nationalism, the charge is perhaps even more appropriate to Ulster Unionism in all its variants. The parties of Unionism were as noted above, and remain, great pan-class constructs which have reified identity above more local or specific concerns. And even to suggest the DUP is more populist is, in some ways, merely to ascribe features based upon their membership rather than to indicate any specific ideological component. One of the banes of leftism has been a tendency to project revolutionary or ideological aspects onto groupings which have only the vaguest and most transitory relationship with same. I’ve yet to see a convincing argument about the proletarian nature of the DUP, but no doubt it’s being written up somewhere. Feargal Cochrane in his “Unionist Politics and the politics of unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement” touched on some of this when he noted that:

“another complicating factor within the DUP was provided by class divisions between the party’s urban working-class heartlands and the increasingly middle-class composition of the leadership, and more importantly, the conflicting political agenda’s of the rural middle-class Free Presbyterian voters and their urban working class secular bretheren. Clifford Smyth argues that the extent to which the DUP became a working-class party is a matter for conjecture, commenting that it is impossible to prove Paul Arthur’s hypothesis that ‘Political Paisleyism was proletarian, but religious Paisleyism attracted lower middle-class congregations which crammed the ample car park with their Cortinas”.

Tellingly Cochrane doesn’t address the UUP in class terms at all, other than tangentially.

Having said that, what is interesting about this is that it points to a new future political structure in the North where southern political formations would vie for votes in the North and also attempt to be part of the governing institutions. It’s not quite a unity agenda, in the sense that there is no impression from Fianna Fáil that it intends to use any future position in government to leverage the situation forward. And in that respect Ó Cuív’s words about “…they are bound to share power with a nationalist party” are revealing. The Good Friday Agreement status quo remains just that. Sure, there will be greater emphasis on cross-border links, but no hurry. And then there is his question about ‘reversing the tide’. Does he mean the SF tide? Or that which has ensued after the GFA? Or has a certain rhetorical vagueness entered the equation? And is that last sentence of his to be interpreted as a call to move beyond nationalism? What sort of Fianna Fáil is being offered here? Certainly it stretches the definition of catch-all to undreamt of extremes.

Strange times. But rhetorical times. Before any of this becomes even slightly persuasive it would be necessary to see concrete action. I don’t see any prospect of that in the immediate, or even the medium term. And so Ó Cuív’s comments should be regarded if not necessarily with cynicism, then certainly with scepticism. I don’t follow the old DL line that say and do nothing to upset Unionism (you’ll see examples of it in upcoming Times Change when they’re added to the Left Archive). Unionism is a fairly robust entity, even at the worst of times. But rhetoric is another thing entirely. Don’t say it unless you mean it. I don’t really believe they mean… at least not yet.

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