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Cormac McQuinn: 'FF faces obstacles before it can win seats in Commons'

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Mr Martin said the risk of a split was a factor under consideration. Photo: PA

Mr Martin said the risk of a split was a factor under consideration. Photo: PA

Mr Martin said the risk of a split was a factor under consideration. Photo: PA

Consider this scenario: It's 2022 and Fianna Fáil is running candidates in Northern Ireland in the next scheduled Westminster election. Some of them win out over abstentionist Sinn Féin rivals and newly minted Fianna Fáil MPs prepare to take their seats in the House of Commons.

This would be in keeping with the tradition of the SDLP, which had previously provided a voice for Northern Irish nationalists when Sinn Féin would not.

That scenario, while hypothetical, is the logical outcome of the mooted merger between Fianna Fáil and the SDLP amid renewed reports there could be an announcement on plans for a phased integration within weeks.

But there will be serious hurdles to overcome, not least opposition from within SDLP itself.

At this point it has not been confirmed that Fianna Fáil will be running candidates in next May's local elections in Northern Ireland, let alone the next Westminster vote, whenever it may be. Brexit may see it come much sooner than 2022.

It was last summer when it emerged that negotiations were taking place on some form of Fianna Fáil deal with the SDLP.

In September, party leader Micheál Martin said it was a work in progress and stressed no decisions had been taken. He didn't rule out the possibility that future Fianna Fáil politicians could take seats in Westminster, saying: "We certainly wouldn't contest elections and then not take our seats."

There was a spanner thrown in the works the following month when Éamon Ó Cuív TD and Senator Mark Daly travelled to Omagh to present Sorcha McAnespy - a former Sinn Féin councillor - as Fianna Fáil's first local election candidate in the North.

Fianna Fáil quickly distanced itself from the move, which was seen as unhelpful to the talks with the SDLP.

In November, Mr Martin said the risk of a split in the SDLP if it merges with Fianna Fáil was a factor being considered. There is some resistance. South Belfast SDLP MLA Claire Hanna told the BBC she wouldn't join Fianna Fáil and the SDLP's youth wing has also signalled its opposition.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin last night sought to stir things up saying that many in the SDLP - historically Labour's sister party - feel closer to them than Fianna Fáil's "conservative nationalism". Mr Howlin said Labour would continue to "actively support" those in the SDLP who oppose a merger.

If it does happen, the prospect of Fianna Fáil politicians winning Westminster seats and facing an oath of allegiance won't sound so far-fetched. We may see a modern-day version of Éamon de Valera's "empty formula" dismissal of the long-abolished oath to the British crown in Dáil Éireann.

Irish Independent