Warning as Fianna Fail looks to North

UNIONISTS have warned Irish premier Bertie Ahern against any kind of "chicanery" after he announced yesterday that his Fianna Fail party is to look at organising in Northern Ireland.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said Mr Ahern’s party “won’t be taking any votes off unionists” and could in fact end up helping them to regain seats.

And UUP leader Sir Reg Empey accused Mr Ahern of “throwing a grenade” into the middle of Ulster politics just as it was settling down.

It is the first time in the 81-year history of Fianna Fail that efforts are being made to mobilise on an all-Ireland basis.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern is to spearhead a committee to drive the strategy.

Possible links between Fianna Fail and the SDLP have been speculated upon in the past.

The Taoiseach yesterday told a party meeting: “I am announcing that Fianna Fail the Republican Party will now move to develop a strategy for organising on a 32- county basis.

“This move reflects the dramatic changes we have seen across the island.”

Dermot Ahern said: “We wouldn’t be interested in going to the House of Commons as a political party.

“That is for others to do. We feel we should have representation in Northern Ireland as a political party.”

The Irish leader said that the party will act slowly and strategically on the new departure.

“We are under no illusions. It will not be easy. It will challenge us all, but I am confident we will succeed,” he said.

Mr Donaldson said the move could end up dividing the nationalist vote even more, helping unionists to regains lost seats.

The Lagan Valley MP said he didn’t see how the SDLP could forge links with Fianna Fail given the parties’ intrinsic differences.

“The SDLP is essentially a Labour party and its links are with the Labour Party in the South, so I don’t see how they can form any kind of alliance.

“I think if they are looking to use this as some kind of a Trojan horse to gain a united Ireland they will be sorely disappointed. Voters here have little appetite for that kind of chicanery.”

Sir Reg Empey accused Mr Ahern of disturbing the emerging status quo and of bringing “civil war politics” into Northern Ireland.

“We want a transition to dealing with the normality of life here and the concentration on our social and economic policies,” he said.

“With the return of Stormont the door has opened once again to achieving this progress to normality.

“Hardly has this been achieved but Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail throw a grenade into the middle of Northern Ireland politics by announcing their decision to organise here and fight some elections. The last thing we need is another abstentionist party organising here.

“The prospect of Fianna Fail ministers being in both the NI Executive and the Dublin government could put unbearable strain on the political process before it has had a chance to settle down.

“It seems clear that the hugs and the handshakes between Ian Paisley and Bertie Ahern have been interpreted as weakness by Irish nationalism not as a gesture of friendship.”

Sinn Fein welcomed the announcement. Party Assembly group leader John O’Dowd said: “It is encouraging that the Fianna Fail leadership is finally incorporating an all-island approach into its political priorities and strategies.

“We are delighted that Fianna Fail has finally taken our lead and look forward to the political challenges ahead should they progress beyond the initial committee work.”

The SDLP said it was focused on the immediate task of improving people’s lives through the work of the existing political structures.

A spokesman said: “The SDLP has always taken the view that once the institutions of the Good Friday agreement were up and running again, there would be a potential for political realignment within the North and between North and South.”