Geese and Ganders… or the forward march of Fianna Fáil (in the North). Halted. July 29, 2008Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.
Hard not to see yet a further example of the lack of substance of the Ahern years when one reads two entirely distinct but interlocking articles on the North in the Phoenix and the Irish Times.
In the Phoenix one reads that “Soldiers of Destiny Retreat from North” and it continues by pointing out that:
Following Ahern’s surprise announcement last September that Fianna Fáil were considering organising in the North, the party signed up a clutch of new members in the North’s third level insitutions. They then formally registered as a political party in Norn Iron in December and set up a northern strategy committee chaired by Dermot Ahern. It looked as if was only a matter of time before Fianna Fáil gobbled up what’s left of the SDLP and challenged Sinn Féin for the northern nationalist vote.
Hmmmm. Well, after the not entirely resounding success of the Lisbon campaign one might wonder what the ‘strategy committee’ were at. And indeed the Phoenix notes that:
A series of statements that have gone unnoticed in the Republic indicate a retreat of Russian winter proportions (pedant alert – do Russian winters retreat in quite the way implied here?). Visiting Belfast a fortnight ago the Taoiseach was asked what progress his marching column had made. Standing beside Margaret Ritchie, the SDLP’s only minister in the northern assembly, he told the media, ‘There is no imminent possibility of Fianna Fáil organising in the North’.
Which will as the Phoenix also records come as cold comfort to those within the SDLP who have seen the ‘Republican Party’ as the vehicle for their salvation in the context of their slow demise in the face of Sinn Féin.
And the reasons for this are obvious. The Phoenix points to the upcoming Euro-elections and asks ‘could Fianna Fáil get their act together in the North in time?’. The answer is probably not. But a more interesting and fundamental aspect of this is also suggested by the Phoenix. ‘Dermot Ahern has already said that Fianna Fáil would not stand for Westminster elections’, and the upshot of this would be entirely predictable. ‘That would automatically hand Sinn Féin seven nationalist seats in 2010 if Fianna Fáil did not allow the SDLP’s three MPs to stand. is that really conceivable?’
No, it clearly isn’t. But the result of such a ‘strategy’, if implemented, would be to further embed Sinn Féin as the de facto governing party of Northern nationalism. And even were we to see a Jesuitical division worthy of de Valera between the posited union of SDLP and FF during Westminster elections it would still leave political advantage with a Sinn Féin willing to go half the distance (to Westminster, while abstaining) and reap all the spoils in terms of political and public profile.
So where then would the supposed lustre added by FF shine? Local elections? Assembly elections? The former would be an irrelevance to Dublin, the latter, well now, that might be an equal prize. But… in the context of their unwillingness to stand up and be counted in the communalist headcount that Westminster elections tend to represent they would be continually somewhat less than fully engaged. And let’s not ignore the power of communalist thinking in all this. The support of a sponsor from the South – particularly as a means of cementing the current structures – would be a powerful political tool.
So, what’s left? The Phoenix suggests that ‘the alternative is to develop the SDLP more brazenly as Fianna Fáil’s northern wing… it’s second best but…it’s a link with Fianna Fáil which gives the SDLP the all-island dimension it craves’.
Thinking about that last sentence it is true that for the SDLP there is an increasing necessity to be able to project themselves as a more significant entity than a ‘regional’ party. In the past when Sinn Féin were beyond the pale that was easy. We all recall the procession of the great and the good North (for those of us based in Dublin) to assist the SDLP in their electoral ventures. And indeed that dynamic may have, in retrospect, turned out to be a somewhat mixed blessing, since the SDLP can point to a very mixed set of family connections with at various points FF, Labour and even Fine Gael links. Untangling them has proven difficult – and indeed impossible in terms of one obvious lash-up between the SDLP and the Irish Labour Party.
But consider another implicit aspect of the last sentence in the Phoenix. Why is it that Fianna Fáil doesn’t crave an all-island dimension? Does this not tell us some intriguing things about that party and how perception and reality are more than slightly detached from each other?
And in a way this is what I mean when I suggest that this mess, and what is it other than a mess, is entirely symbolic of the Ahern years. Because it underlines the gulf between the lofty rhetoric and the reality of having to seriously engage as an all-island, all-Ireland party. Or – to put it another way – the sort of cant that goes down well at an Ard Fhéis, and maybe gives a small fillip to poll ratings, and the real work that has to be done beyond those four walls. Now, in fairness one might say that Fianna Fáil may well be looking at the more than mixed experience of Sinn Féin, which remains stunted in the South in contrast to its buoyant performance in the North and that hard-headed pragmatism may make that particular example a source of thoughtful reflection and ultimately a decision that there is no purpose to be served by expending political capital on a project with no clear positive outcomes. I can’t help but think that that too is very telling about the realities of the contemporary North/South dispensation. And also about what is achievable in the short term.
But, as if to underline that, here comes another small piece of information that explicates another reality, that of the North/East axis. For while Fianna Fáil near-silently pulls back (and that silence is understandable – I know I’d keep pretty silent if I was them under these circumstances) other political links are being forged. As the Irish Times noted on Friday:
[David] Cameron and UUP leader Sir Reg Empey announced the formation of a working group to examine possible benefits of greater co-operation between the two parties.
“What I would like to see is the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party actually come together and create a new force in Northern Irish politics,” Mr Cameron said yesterday.
“I think it would be good for Northern Ireland politics. Politics in Northern Ireland should not be just about Orange or Green and constitutional issues; it should be about national politics as well. And I’d like to give people in Northern Ireland a chance to take part in a party and politics that are about all of the issues that we care about,” added Mr Cameron.
And this wasn’t just whistling in the wind. For the leadership of both parties were both involved at a high level in proceedings (unlike the Fianna Fáil machinations).
While it will take months before the working party reports, Mr Paterson and Sir Reg were well disposed to the proposal. Were it to get the go-ahead, it is likely that the first election contested on a joint Conservative-UUP ticket would be next year’s European Elections, with UUP MEP Jim Nicholson running, Sir Reg suggested. Mr Nicholson is linked with the Conservative group in the European Parliament.
Now, early days yet. But, while I have no liking at all for this proposal and tend to think that the protestations by Cameron and the UUP that “We want the very best possible relations with the Irish Government . . . I can’t see how this could but strengthen relations.” is entertaining only because it is so clearly incorrect, at least one can say that this is the way to do things.
And here’s a few other thoughts.
[Owen] Paterson [Conservative Party spokesman – and someone worth watching I’d suspect] said “absolutely”, when asked whether it was possible that an Ulster Unionist MP or Ulster Unionist member of the House of Lords would be in David Cameron’s government, should the Conservative Party win the next general election.
“We are the only national party offering access to voters in Northern Ireland to have a real say in getting members elected, not just to Westminster but to actually getting them in a Westminster government,” he said.
For the DUP this is far from the happiest news possible. They may well claim that ‘this posed no threat to the DUP’, but on a political level even the hint that the UUP may have the option of some degree of governance at a UK national level should provide some small boost to their declining fortunes. And while it tends against the devolutionary approach of the UUP over the past decade or so it makes entirely coherent political sense. Moreover for Cameron it assists in his project by presenting him as a man of the Union – in the broader sense, a fit with the UUP that, for its many flaws, is not entirely divorced from both his supposed social liberalism and his conservatism.
And to return to the South, could one deny Reg Empey his moment in the sun and perhaps – and I assume he’s better informed on these matters than most – a little schadenfreude?
Sir Reg said the UUP also enjoyed good relations with the [Irish] Government but referred to how Fianna Fáil was considering setting up in Northern Ireland, possibly in a link-up with the SDLP. “The principal Irish Government party has decided to organise in Northern Ireland. So ‘shock horror’ we decide to look at the possibility of working together with a national party here,” said Sir Reg.
And, to add a little salt – I mean of course sauce – into the wound…
“What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I don’t see any possibility of this affecting relationships at all,” he added.
It sure is. Assuming the goose is interested. Which it isn’t.