With Fianna Fáil in turmoil following the general election, Stephen Kelly questions whether the party will look to begin participating in Northern Irish politics
Speaking on RTÉ’s Radio’s News at One in the aftermath of Fianna Fáil’s decimation in the Irish general election, the party leader Micheál Martin announced that the organisation is ‘actively considering’ entering Northern Ireland politics. Critics have been quick to accuse Martin of jumping on the Republican bandwagon. In a desperate attempt to rescue the party from the political graveyard he has returned to the rhetoric of Republican nationalism.
Do Martin’s comments smack of political opportunism or are they, in fact, a genuine policy initiative to breed new life into a bewildered organisation? In the first instances, given the traumatised state that the party finds itself, his comments do seem opportunistic. With only 20 Dáil seats, no women TDs, much of the Ógra generation wiped out and the party in a shambles at local level, the last place Martin should be looking at is Northern Ireland.
His pledge, however, is not simply a case for political jostling. In fact, in recent years the Fianna Fáil hierarchy has already made some small footprints in the political landscape of Northern Ireland. Although tentative, since 2007, Fianna Fáil has officially begun to build up its organisation through the North.
In September 2007, then taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern announced that Fianna Fáil had decided to extend its organisation into Northern Ireland so as to possibly contest future local and Assembly Northern Ireland elections, scheduled for 2016. Upon Ahern’s announcement, a new sub-committee of Fianna Fáil’s National Executive, the ‘Northern Ireland Strategy Group’, was formed to draft the party’s strategy on the North. Up until his recent retirement, the sub-committee was chaired by the former minister for justice and border county TD for Louth, Dermot Ahern.
In early December 2007, Fianna Fáil commenced its first recruitment drive in Northern Ireland in almost seventy years. Two new ‘Political Societies’ were established: the first, the William Drennan cumann at Queen’s University Belfast, the second the Watty Graham cumann at Magee campus of the Ulster of University, in Derry. Furthermore, in the same month, Fianna Fáil successfully registered with the UK Electoral Commission as a Northern Ireland political party.
At the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis, in February 2009, it was revealed that the establishment of a Fianna Fáil Fora across Northern Ireland, initially on a county-by-county basis, had commenced. A Fianna Fáil spokesperson said each Fora would not constitute a party branch, but was an informal grouping of people interested in or sympathetic to Fianna Fáil. The aim of each Fora is ‘to build up membership and a solid party structure’ in a particular electoral region.
The Fianna Fáil leadership stressed the need for local organisations within Northern Ireland to form themselves and then to approach party headquarters for formal recognition and support. This ‘bottom up’ approach has been continually echoed by senior Fianna Fáil members, former taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil, Brian Cowen articulated that the party’s approach towards its entry into Northern Ireland should be ‘carefully and quietly’ managed.
In September 2009, Fianna Fáil officially formed its first Fora in the constituency of Downpatrick, south Down. In July of the same year, the youth wing of the Fianna Fáil, Ógra Fianna Fáil, held its first summer school in Derry; in early August 2010 the Ógra Fianna Fáil again held their summer school in Northern Ireland, on this occasion the venue was Belfast.
In November 2009, a further constituency Fora, the party’s third (the other being established in Crossmaglen, south Armagh) was formed in the constituency of Fermanagh south Tyrone. While in July 2010, Brian Cowen visited the republican heartland of Crossmaglen, south Armagh, to officially open a Fianna Fáil office in the town; Cowen’s presence marked the first occasion that a serving taoiseach visited Crossmaglen.
Fianna Fáil’s decision to cross the border was undoubtedly influenced by the ‘normalising’ process which has occurred within Northern Ireland politics over recent years. The Democratic Unionist Party’s decision in 2007 to enter a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin, as noted by a senior Fianna Fáil source, meant that there was no longer any reason for the Fianna Fáil not to enter Northern Ireland politics, it was now ‘pragmatic … politics as usual’.
Sinn Féin’s recent success in the Irish general election – now representing a major Opposition force in the Dáil – lends further weight to Martin and those within Fianna Fáil, that the time is now opportune to push forward the party’s drive in the North. Indeed, for many of the Irish electorate, the Fianna Fáil government’s leading role in the peace process is the only positive factor that can be accredited to the party’s fourteen years in power.
In declaring Fianna Fáil’s intention to return to the ‘fourth green field’, Martin hopes to steel from Sinn Féin the title of the true ‘All Ireland’ political party. In the same vein that Sinn Féin successfully secured a percentage of Fianna Fáil’s core vote during last month’s general election, Martin will ultimately hope to tap into those northern nationalists that have grown despondent of Sinn Féin’s polices.
The question of whether Fianna Fáil would seek to merge with the SDLP is interesting. The SDLP are not in good health at present; they have found themselves marginalised in recent years by the polarisation of politics in Northern Ireland. Speaking only last month, Martin ruled out the probability of an immediate deal between Fianna Fáil and the SDLP.
Nevertheless, over recent years the kite has been flown. Some within the SDLP are known to favour an alliance with Fianna Fáil. The election of Margaret Richie as leader of the SDLP in February 2010 means for the meantime any merger with Fianna Fáil is highly unlikely. Speaking at the Irish Labour Party conference in April 2010 she maintained that there would be no alliance with Fianna Fáil on ‘my watch’.
Micheál Martin’s recent announcement that Fianna Fáil wished get involved ‘on the ground’ in Northern Ireland politics bares all the hallmarks of a politician desperately trying to carve out an ideological niche for a party that is on the brink of the political abyss. His comments, however, are not to be unexpected. Prior to the general election it was anticipated by Fianna Fáil headquarters that by the end of 2011 further Forums would be established in every of Northern Ireland’s six counties, with plans to create Fora in Belfast city, Derry city and Co. Tyrone. Given Fianna Fáil’s collapse, it is difficult to envisage that the party can secure this objective.
Nonetheless, over the coming years, in the run up to the Northern Ireland Assembly election scheduled for 2016 (the centenary of the 1916 Rising), Martin may look to the North for some salvation from the political turmoil that Fianna Fáil now finds itself. If the party is to fashion a new identity, based on the key values and ideological principles of Fianna Fáil’s founding fathers, as Martin has himself acknowledged, maybe its extension into Northern Ireland, will help to regenerate and refocus the party.