In a significant policy shift, Fianna Fail is to become an all-Ireland political party with a view to gaining power in the North -- but will not contest elections to the Westminster parliament in London.
The 26-County Prime Minister, An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, said that it was time for his party to play “its full role... in this new Ireland” by organising itself on a 32-County basis.
Speaking at Fianna Fail’s two-day ‘think-in’ at Druid’s Glen in Co Wicklow, Mr Ahern said that the island’s largest political party would work to attract new members in the North.
“Only now, with the northern executive and assembly in place. Only now, that we have convinced all but the dissident fringe of nationalism to embrace peace.
“Only now, that the two great traditions on this island are reconciled, can we take this historic move,’’ he told delegates.
“I am announcing that Fianna Fail, the Republican Party, will now move to develop a strategy for organising on a 32-county basis.
“This move reflects the dramatic changes we have seen across the island.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern claimed that Fianna Fail had previously avoided getting involved in northern politics in order to prevent a split in the nationalist vote and to ensure that the peace process was not undermined.
“We now believe there is no logic against us moving in some way into Northern Ireland,” he said.
He warned that any speculation concerning an alignment with the nationalist SDLP was premature, prompting suggesting that the party could seek to win voters from Sinn Féin with its claim to be a ‘republican’ party.
The rival SDLP had previously ruled out merging another party, despite watching its fortunes fade following the retirement of the influential John Hume and Seamus Mallon. However, in a statement this week it appeared to signal a change of heart, saying: “The SDLP has always taken the view that once the institutions of the Good Friday agreement were up and running again, there would be a potential for political realignment within the north and between north and south.
“As the party which was the pathfinder for our new political arrangements, the SDLP will be ready for the challenge or opportunity of such a future adjustment, when it ripens.”
Sinn Féin said it was encouraged that the Fianna Fail leadership was following its lead by incorporating an all-island approach into its political priorities and strategies.
“It is nearly 10 years since the Good Friday agreement was endorsed by the people of the island and signed by the 26-county government,” said Kerry North TD Martin Ferris.
“It is regretful that it has taken Fianna Fail so long to embrace the positive aspects of developing its party throughout the 32 counties, but we are encouraged that the Taoiseach has finally acknowledged the importance of such a move.”
Ulster Unionists said the Fianna Fail move was “unwanted and destabilising” UUP leader Reg Empey said any move by Ahern’s party north of the Border would damage attempts to achieve political normality.
Amid reports of the possible emergence of a new ultra-hardline unionist party, he accused Bertie Ahern of “throwing a hand grenade” into the middle of northern politics.
“The last thing we need is another abstentionist party organising here,” he said. “Bertie Ahern at a stroke has transformed himself from a potential partner in the process of normalisation, to a rival.”
Looking to the possibility of the election to the Belfast Assembly of Fianna Fail candidates, Empey added: “The prospect of Fianna Fail ministers being in both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Dublin government could put unbearable strain on the political process before it has had a chance to settle down.”
Sinn Féin Assembly member Mitchel McLaughlin again called on Bertie Ahern to honour his stated commitment to provide representation in the Oireachtas [Dublin parliament] for elected representatives from the North.
“Irish citizens should not be denied their constitutional right to participate fully in the life of the nation just because they were abandoned behind an artificial border imposed by a foreign power,” he said.
“Otherwise, if Bertie Ahern follows through on his intention to organize on an all-Ireland basis how could he justify it to his supporters if those in the 26-counties were to be given full national rights while those in the 6 were not.”