Sam McBride: Sinn Féin might hope the SDLP-Fianna Fáil alliance fails – but that would be short-sighted

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has struggled to articulate why his party is entering a 'policy partnership' with Fianna Fail
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has struggled to articulate why his party is entering a 'policy partnership' with Fianna Fail

A lot is riding on the SDLP’s gamble to enter a partnership with Fianna Fáil — and not just for those two parties.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood’s proposal to lead his party into a ‘policy partnership’ was endorsed by 70% of delegates to a special SDLP conference last Saturday.

But although that figure demonstrates significant support for the move, almost a third of those present opposed the historic change in the SDLP’s position. If this new alliance does not rapidly bear fruit, those who reluctantly endorsed it last week are likely to peel away and the already substantial number of internal critics could grow.

But although this might seem to be just a debate within a segment of nationalist politics which has been in seemingly terminal decline for two decades, the significance of what now happens will have impacts on the wider political landscape.

At a glance, it is easy to see why Fianna Fáil is enthusiastic about the link. Even though the SDLP has been in decline, it still managed to win almost 12% of the vote in the 2017 general election — more than the Alliance Party, Green Party, TUV and People Before Profit combined.

By contrast, Fianna Fáil only has a tiny presence in Northern Ireland and to win the 95,000 SDLP votes in any election would take major work for Micheál Martin’s party.

It now seems to face a win-win situation. Either the partnership delivers increased votes for the SDLP, in which case the argument for deepening the relationship or merging the parties will be compelling, or the SDLP loses more votes and tears itself apart, leaving open a gap in the market for a full fat Fianna Fáil to move in.

But from the SDLP’s perspective, the deal is less immediately attractive. Firstly, the decision itself has divided an already shrunken party. Just hours after last Saturday’s vote to align with Fianna Fáil, a handful of activists and a former Belfast councillor quit the party. But that was just a hint of what is a far deeper ideological debate.

The decision of Claire Hanna, one of the few big beasts of the SDLP these days and consistently its most articulate public voice, to resign as Brexit spokesperson and speak out against the new arrangement was a major blow. If the new relationship itself leads to the party losing Ms Hanna, it will have to deliver huge benefits just to replace what it has cost the SDLP.

Secondly, there is confusion around what exactly the new arrangement will entail. Daniel McCrossan, the SDLP MLA who was quickly appointed to replace Ms Hanna, was on Monday asked questions about how the arrangement would work in practice. He sounded uncertain.

According to another party source, there will not be a joint manifesto, joint candidates, leaflets with joint branding or any role for Fianna Fáil in selecting SDLP candidates for May’s council elections. However, beyond that the situation is less clear and it remains to be seen whether the ‘policy partnership’ is an end in itself or the first step towards a merger.

Thirdly, as well as the difficulty of bringing any two parties together there is the particular challenge of agreeing policy between a left wing party in the SDLP and a centrist Fianna Fáil, which on several issues is firmly right of centre.

Fianna Fáil has, for instance, endorsed fiscal rectitude and the austerity necessary to balance the books in Dublin, while the SDLP has railed against ‘Tory austerity’ from London, and has been enthusiastic about making Ireland a corporate tax haven for some of the world’s wealthiest companies - not the sort of Labour values which are felt keenly by some SDLP members.

The SDLP-Fianna Fail partnership could very easily become guilty of those two parties’ long-standing criticism of Sinn Féin — that it says one thing in the north and another in the south.

However, on reading the last Fianna Fáil manifesto the striking thing is how little of it is in conflict with SDLP policy.

And it is likely that policy conflicts will be less about the substance of the issue than the fact that such inconsistencies are likely to lead to lots of interviews in which SDLP figures appear to be on the back foot as they attempt to explain away contradictory positions

Both north and south of the border, ideology in Irish politics has almost invariably always taken second place to other more tribal instincts. Fianna Fáil has been particularly adept at populist policy shifts to fit with the prevailing social and economic headwinds. David McCann, the deputy editor of the Slugger O’Toole political blog and a former member of Fianna Fail, last year succinctly described the party as “not a party of strict ideological thinking in a right/left sense”.

But the big attraction for the SDLP is that it breaks Colum Eastwood’s party beyond the confines of Northern Ireland. Coming at a time of constitutional upheaval and amid a governance vacuum at Stormont, the timing for such an all-island alternative could hardly be better. A significant section of nationalist voters — many of whom, polling suggests, would have voted for the Union in a border poll — are now significantly discomfited by Brexit and the scandals which have dogged Stormont.

They are open to alternatives and the Fianna Fáil link provides a major departure from what went before. Just two years before the centenary of partition, the northwards move of the party which in many ways built the Republic is the sort of big idea which at least has the potential to grab the attention of an apathetic voter.

It is possible to see how the new vehicle, if it could develop as a coherent and professional outfit, could be attractive for nationalist voters who for economic reasons or a distaste for Sinn Féin’s continued defence of those responsible for IRA atrocities would be open to a new political home.

And that is why some unionists are conflicted about the venture. On the one hand, they are uneasy about Fianna Fáil’s history, some recalling the gun-running to the IRA at the start of the Troubles, and are uneasy about voting for an all-island party which - presentationally at least — will put more emphasis on Irish unity than the SDLP did.

But on the other hand, many unionists see Micheál Martin holding Mary Lou McDonald’s feet to the fire every week in the Dail and they rather like it. Depending on the lines of attack which the new ‘policy partnership’ adopts, it is possible to see unionists pragmatically deciding that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and continuing to give transfer votes to the SDLP-Fianna Fáil entity — something which until now has been crucial to many SDLP MLAs and councillors keeping their seats.

But while at a purely party political level, Sinn Féin will be hoping to see the new pairing fall apart, there are wider strategic reasons for republicans to quietly hope that it proves at least modestly successful. As the first northwards move by a southern party, the outcome of this alliance will influence how the south perceives Northern Ireland’s political landscape. If the most successful party in the history of the Irish Republic fails to make any impact north of the border it will add to the sense of many in the south that Northern Ireland is a place apart which would be very difficult to integrate with the rest of the island.

While that might suit Sinn Féin electorally, it would be damaging to its ultimate goal of ending partition.

And there is an even wider issue at stake. Over the last decade Northern Ireland has seen two fairly radical attempts to shake up the political scene — the Ulster Unionist-Conservative alliance and the new liberal pro-Union party NI21, both of which failed (though People Before Profit shows that not all new ideas necessarily perish).

With every failed attempt to think beyond the historic parameters of Northern Ireland politics, the task of those planning the next inventive political move will become still harder.