A high-profile recent recruit to the SDLP has said ongoing talks of a merger between her party and Dublin-based Fianna Fail resemble a “takeover”.
Mairia Cahill, a former Irish Labour Senator in the Republic of Ireland who was co-opted on to Lisburn and Castlereagh Council just months ago by the SDLP, was speaking amid reports in Dublin that a “significant” announcement is expected in the coming weeks on a possible merger between the SDLP and Fianna Fail.
And Irish Labour has now announced it will “step in” and help “put a social democratic option to the people at elections” in Northern Ireland if the merger between Fianna Fail and the SDLP goes ahead.
That could see two major political parties based primarily in the Republic of Ireland contesting elections on this side of the border – in addition to Sinn Fein, who already have an electoral presence in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.
The Irish Times reported yesterday morning that a “significant” announcement is expected early in 2019. But details of discussions between the leaderships of the two parties have not yet been shared with the wider SDLP membership.
A senior SDLP MLA has admitted to the News Letter that they are unaware of the details of the ongoing talks. Another senior figure in the party, former long-serving MLA Alban Maginness, said he was “in the dark” about the talks.
The News Letter understands a letter has been circulated within the party membership recently, outlining the concerns of those opposed to the move.
SDLP MLA Claire Hanna is amongst those to have publicly voiced disquiet over the possible integration of the two parties. She told the BBC’s The View programme in October that Fianna Fail is “not a party I would join” as she highlighted the “social democratic” tradition of the SDLP.
Speaking to the News Letter yesterday, Ms Cahill said: “I have a lot of respect for Micheal Martin, the Fianna Fail leader, who has been extremely helpful to me personally. Politically, though, I joined the Irish Labour Party in 2015. I was an Irish Labour Senator and I will remain an Irish Labour member.
“Fianna Fail can tell you whether they are a social democratic party, but I can certainly tell you that one of the main tenets of the Irish Labour Party is that they are committed to social democracy.”
She added: “This looks very much like a takeover to me. That it has been leaked to the media before any frank discussions with the membership is very regrettable.”
An SDLP spokesperson said: “Talks have been ongoing for some time now. But as we have consistently stated, any final decision on this matter will be brought before the party membership.”
In a statement on Monday, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said the party is ready to “embrace” change.
He added: “The incoming year will, no doubt, prove to be challenging for us all. The SDLP is determined to continue to fight for people here. We will continue to argue against Brexit, we will forcefully make the case for a return to Stormont and we will never stop pointing out that we badly need to be represented in every forum.
“With all the political change we are experiencing it is important to point out that we too are ready to embrace change. Since our foundation the SDLP has led much of the political advancement that Ireland has experienced. We want to lead that change again. We are determined to ensure that we are in a position to do so.”
SDLP Youth has confirmed its objection to any such merger.
In a tweet the organisation wrote: “We would like to reaffirm our position as carried at our Policy Conference in August 2018: SDLP Youth is against any merger, working arrangement, etc with any party whose values and principles are contradictory to the values and principles of the SDLP.”
A spokeswoman for Fianna Fail said the party would not be making any comment on the matter.
IRISH LABOUR TO ‘STEP IN’
Irish Labour leader Brendan Howlin has announced his party will “step in” to politics in Northern Ireland if the SDLP “allies with” Fianna fail.
Mr Howlin hinted his party could offer assistance to SDLP members unhappy with a possible merger.
“It is a matter for the membership of the SDLP to chart their future direction,” he said.
“But I am conscious that many in the SDLP feel closer to the Labour tradition than to the conservative nationalism of Fianna Fáil.
“I am mindful of the links built up by John Hume and others with our sister parties in the Party of European Socialists.
“These links were instrumental in building up support for Northern Ireland across Europe.”
He added: “At our own conference in November, I said that the Labour Party would step in if the SDLP allies with Fianna Fáil.
“What that means is that we will actively support our comrades in Northern Ireland to continue to put a social democratic option to the people at elections.
“People in Northern Ireland must be empowered to lead on how to pursue Labour politics, not dictated to by any party from south of the border.”