Thursday, October 04, 2007

Bertie & co decide it's not so grim up North after all

While Phil's take on the future of the SDLP remains relatively lukewarm off the press, here's another article, also penned by a guest writer, Andrew Charles on Fianna Fáil's apparent plans to throw their hat into the arena of Northern Irish politics

Fianna Fáil moves North
The decision of Fianna Fáil, the Irish Republic's governmental party to consider organising on a cross-border basis may cause great concern and debate not only among Unionists, but also Nationalists in Northern Ireland. The party's presence at recent Northern Ireland University Fresher day events, in the hope of recruiting members, seems that they are serious about campaigning here. In competition with Sinn Féin and the SDLP, Fianna Fáil boasted success, particularly at the University of Ulster's Magee campus. They also had a strong presence at Queen’ University, where they were placed beside the Democratic Unionists, provoking much laughter from visiting First Minister, Ian Paisley and colleagues.

Political conditions prior to May 2007 would not have permitted Fianna Fáil to organise north of the border, as the party leadership sought to carry on post-Anglo-Irish Agreement relations in acting as neutral observers of the peace process in order to broker a deal. Despite 10 years of political bargaining it now appears that both British and Irish governments have successfully achieved their goal in creating power-sharing between Ulster’s Unionists and Nationalists.

Fianna Fáil, meaning ‘soldiers of destiny’, set up by Eamon DeValera in 1927 has always maintained that they are an Irish republican party seeking the re-unification of Ireland. Some may question the Party’s motives as when Bertie Ahern came to power in the Republic he sought to broker a political deal in Northern Ireland. In his quest he sought to reach out to Unionism, seeking to comfort Unionist suspicions by publicly stating that he recognised Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom and supported the principle of consent. However the political climate was very different then. The SDLP led Northern Nationalism with Sinn Féin playing second fiddle. Now the tables have turned and the electoral fortunes of Sinn Féin have surpassed those of the SDLP. A DUP/Sinn Féin coalition government led by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness is now in existence; creating political stability with all main players signed up to a deal and benefiting from the fruits of political power. Ten years ago one would have thought all this was impossible and some could only dream, or have nightmares. These changes within the current political climate have made it possible for Fianna Fáil to organise in Northern Ireland.

It could be suggested that Fianna Fáil have made this move for two reasons. Either to follow and aspire to their founding fathers' aims and objectives, in pursuit of a United Ireland or to address the electoral competition faced from SF, north and south of the border. SF were returned to the Irish Parliament in the elections earlier this year with one seat less - despite being predicted to gain ten seats and become potential 'king-makers' of a new coalition government. This however did not transpire to the surprise of many. Perhaps one suggestion as to their party decision is that FF recognise a possible future threat from SF, south of the border, should they demonstrate an ability to deliver effective and stable Government in Northern Ireland. This could appeal to a larger voter base in the Republic, as the party lacked this in the recent southern elections. SF pose a threat to the political power base of FF - who have successfully managed to retain their position in government on successive occasions, making themselves part of the Irish establishment.
The speed at which this announcement has been made generates various theories; Fianna Fáil need to organise quickly in order to contest threats from Sinn Féin in further elections, whereby Sinn Féin will continue outpoll the SDLP in Northern Ireland and perhaps offer effective competition to Fianna Fáil south of the border.

Whether Fianna Fáil merge with the SDLP or 'go it alone' it will seek to change the political landscape in Northern Ireland, and perhaps the Republic. As for Unionists, Fianna Fáil offer no direct electoral threat, but if the "soldiers of destiny" can successfully establish themselves in Northern Ireland they could pose a threat to the Union with an Irish republican governmental party from south of the border making headway up north.

Andrew Charles is a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast and a current PhD Doctoral student.


CW said...

Some good analysis there, Andrew, but no mention of the politics of the "brown enevelope" which has traditionally been a longstanding part of Fianna Fáil culture from Charles J "Houdini" Haughey up to the present Taoiseach. Some of the more straight-laced politicians in NI (if there are any!) may loathe the idea of Bertie and the Drumcondra mafia coming north to infiltrate the SDLP. Can we expect to be hearing about funds transferred from the Northern Bank to Cayman Islands offshore accounts as evidence in the "Durkan Tribunal" or the "Ritchie Inquiry"? Perish the thought!

Lady Fotherington-Smethers said...

You are getting far too highbrow CW - need to dumb it down a bit to appeal to the common people (innit)?

Andrew Charles said...


I admire your cynicism.

I suspect FF have got up to nothing no political party has here - Sinn Fein and banks and perhaps there is something in Finn McCool and the Causeway story. :)

NI has been such a closed place for 30-years you don't know what has gone on behind closed doors!

Phil said...

Andrew, an interesting article, with a particularly sound piece on the history of FF. However, I strongly believe that some people are taking the "recruiting drive" by FF in QUB and Magee College far, far, too seriously. Sir Reg Empey, for one, usually a "steady as she goes" character (he is one of the few people in politics in whose company I would like to be in were he a captain of a ship in rough seas). I think that Ian Paisley's laughter at QUB fresher's fair is probably a more appropriate response, although I suspect that he may secretly glad to see them as an alternative to SF.

I'd also like to take issue with one point which Andrew has made about SF being a threat to FF's power base: surely the last Southern election demonstrated that SF are not a threat to anyone's power base there. Down South they are now caught in a classic "Catch-22" situation: if they move further left, as some of their members are advocating, they will drift even further onto the margins of Irish politics, only being able to take the odd seat in the Dail here and there, and dying out eventually; if they move to the political centre, they will find themselves outflanked by the other meainstream parties, and their voices drowned out.

My gut feeling is that Bertie Ahern and top brass in FF are much too wily and experienced a flock of birds either to take the old notion of a "32 county sovereign Irish Republic" seriously, or become embroiled directly in NI election politics. Why should they, since they have no experience of the field, and no real mainstream constituency here in the north? More likely, and possibly the best outcome, is for FF to "inject some fire" into the SDLP's body, encouaging them into a form of political FF/SDLP federation, covering all of the Island. Hopefully they will also convince the SDLP of the merits of political courage and more efficient party organization. Some students from the north may wish to join FF, but a few swallows do no a summer make. Why should Ahern want to risk all the work he has done to create a political settlement in NI by putting the whole thing in jeopardy?

Possibly the most significant reason for talk of a merger between FF and the SDLP is, as I've said before, to put SF on the back foot, forcing them to concentrate their efforts on the north against a reinvigorated SDLP, thereby allowing Ahern and Co. to turn May's defeat of SF down south into an absolute rout.

Any SF supporter who makes self-righteous jibes about the corrupt nature of Ahern and FF can be dealt with very easily: what exactly is "uncorrupt" about having your own party members involved in an illicit liason with the world's largest cocaine smugglers? What exactly is "uncorrupt" about being involved in the biggest bank heist in Western Europe? What exactly is "uncorrupt" about financing party activities with proceeds from smuggling?
This list can continue for a long time.

One final point. I think for a lot of people SF represents the childhood monster that lurked in their dreams, or at the back of the wardrobe at night. They take on the form of a rampant beast which cannot be conquered by man, so wonderful and terrible is their party machine and their advocacy and propaganda skills. I think it is time for more of their opponents, particularly the SDLP, to call this for the myth that this really is. The election down south has demonstrated that SF are far from unbeatable, and over the coming years they may become more vulnerable.

Andrew Charles said...

Thanks for your comments Phil.

I'd take your point on board about Sinn Fein being a threat to the FF power base down South. But the point I'm making, refering to FF's recent move, is that they are possibly feeling under threat down South (regardless of SF's losses in the recent election) electorally. SF will now guide themselves on a path that makes them appealing to the southern elector.

To look at the FF move from another angle - is that this recent move - which has triggered more of a debate than action (I'd argue the primary reason behind the announcement) - a move primarily one to keep the shinners in Northern Ireland. You have to remember that Dermot Ahern - a vivid Constitutional Republican represents a border constituency and is a main mover and shaker behind this recent announcement. He is therefore at threat of losing out to the shinners.

However the question that NI has a government are SF irrelevant?

People primarily voted SF as a voice against what was going on in Unionism and also in aid of out polling the SDLP - despite their strong existance and appeal in NI prior to the ceasefires. They sought to in election terms gain the fruits of political power - essentially the reason why political parties exist primarily - to gain ground and power.

They have lost they're way since signing up to policing and since the DUP agreed to share power with them.

All that is needed now is for the SDLP to get their act together and fight these people on the streets and for people.

West Belfast is the most socially deprived Constituency in the UK where Adams has been the MP since 1983 (apart from 1993) winning primarily on a Republican/anti-Brit ticket - its about times changed opening the door for this constituency and inhabitants to see investment and change.

In summary I think the shinners bubble could burst - but nothing is certain. However they still pose a threat while in power North of the border - which they will use to their advantage. I also wouldn't rule out them taking their seats in Westminster in a few years if there is a hung parliament. That would be very Irish Parliamentary Party in using and abusing a Prime Minister position in a minority government. However would Gordo - or who ever that PM may be - be interested? Would the DUP be interested?