Thursday 22 June 2017

Bertie plans eventual FF merger with the SDLP

Party wants to stop Sinn Fein's 'free run' and establish in the North

The Taoiseach will this week announce a major initiative which could eventually result in a merger between Fianna Fail and the SDLP.

Mr Ahern will use his party's "think-in" gathering in Wicklow this week to outline what will effectively be his plan to check the forward march of Sinn Fein.

The Sunday Independent understands that Mr Ahern intends to establish a committee under the chairmanship of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern to seriously explore the idea advancing Fianna Fail as a political party into the North.

Mr Ahern will outline his plans in a major policy speech to Fianna Fail Oireachtas members at Druids Glen in Wicklow.

He will encourage people in the North to support and even join Fianna Fail, hinting that he does not intend to give Sinn Fein what sources describe as a "free run anywhere in Ireland."

The appointment of the high-powered Foreign Affairs Minister, Dermot Ahern, indicates the seriousness of the Taoiseach's thinking.

The small committee he will chair will open widespread discussions across the North, with particular focus on the SDLP.

Yesterday, speaking from France, the Foreign Affairs Minister told the Sunday Independent: "After May 8, and in the context of the Northern Ireland executive up and running, we are looking at the option of Fianna Fail becoming an all-Ireland, 32-county party."

The idea of Fianna Fail setting up in the North has been raised at the last two Fianna Fail ard fheiseanna, and also in that context, a merger with the SDLP has been suggested before.

At this early stage, it is thought that as a first step the establishment of a Friends of Fianna Fail organisation in the North is being looked at.

But the issue of contesting elections in the North is a long way off, and described by sources as "not even on the agenda at the moment."

Fianna Fail will, however, be looking, in the short-term, at aligning itself with a Northern party in the North-South parliamentary forum. It is most likely that the SDLP would be such a suitable party.

A leading figure in the SDLP has already called for a merger with Fianna Fail.

Tom Kelly has become the first member of the SDLP's high command to support fusion with the Republic's largest party.

Writing in The Observer recently, Mr Kelly said Fianna Fail's support base is the natural home of the SDLP.

His intervention in the debate about the SDLP's future was significant, as he is one of the Northern nationalist party's key advisers.

Mr Kelly guided the SDLP to their last major victory over Sinn Fein: Dr Joe Hendron's triumph over Gerry Adams in West Belfast 10 years ago. He was also vice-chairman of the SDLP in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

He wrote: "At the beginning of the 21st century Fianna Fail is the natural party of government, with the instincts and ability to deliver the services and structures that will form the basis of a truly united Ireland.

"It is a party with the support of ordinary decent people who recognise what the real priorities are: health, education and employment. This support base is also the natural home of the SDLP, and it is for this reason that Fianna Fail will never choose to compete against the SDLP directly."

Mr Kelly rejected calls for an alternative merger with the Labour Party, now under the leadership of Eamon Gilmore.

Not all SDLP members are in favour of being absorbed by Fianna Fail, however. Urban members from the party's left wing have indicated that they would leave in the event of a merger, possibly moving to Labour. The SDLP is down to 16 seats after the Assembly elections and holds one ministry in the power-sharing executive.

This contrasts with the first post-Good Friday Agreement government in 1998 when the SDLP was the biggest party at Stormont and its then second-in-command Seamus Mallon was Deputy First Minister.

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