By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Politics is a cold and ruthless business and you’ll not find a consistently colder, more ruthless exponent of that business down the years than the leadership of Fianna Fail, one of the most successful political parties in the democratic world.
Its current leader, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, was described in admiring terms by his mentor Charlie Haughey as “the most ruthless, the most cunning, the most devious of them all” - “all” being all those in the running to succeed Haughey. Bertie duly emerged from the scrum as the ‘teflon taoiseach’.
Bertie is such an amiable guy that he can carry out a ruthless execution without anyone noticing. The wolfish smile never left his face as he pronounced the death sentence on the SDLP but with a stay of its public execution of two years. He was so amiable about it that few realised the full import of what he had done.
No-one doubts that Dermot Ahern’s internal party committee will decide that Fianna Fail should organise in the north. It’s already accepting individual members including students at the north’s universities. It won’t be ready to establish official cumainn until 2009 but the objective is to fight the next assembly elections in 2011 - plenty of time. By that time Fianna Fail the republican party will have devoured the SDLP.
Talk of a merger is just tosh. The very act of Fianna Fail giving notice that it will organise in the north meant curtains for the SDLP. Fianna Fail would not organise here if it thought the SDLP would remain an electoral force. Fianna Fail has decided to intervene in the north exactly because it has decided the SDLP cannot recover its position and Fianna Fail cannot permit Sinn Féin to remain the dominant nationalist party in the north.
There’s been a lot of guff about the SDLP being a sister party of the Irish Labour Party and members leaving if the party was taken over by FF. It’s just that - guff. Especially now the Stickies have taken over Labour. The truth is that since its inception the SDLP has been the Irish government in the north. There was a standing injunction to SDLP spokesmen from John Hume never to criticise the Irish government. How could they when the SDLP always advocated Irish government policy in the north on the national question even if sometimes individual members didn’t agree with it?
Now the dominant nationalist party in the north is Sinn Féin, which opposes Irish government policy on a series of issues especially in the south. Where the SDLP was the Irish government’s proxy in the north, SF is not amenable to such a role and, unlike the SDLP, can never be taken for granted.
When the SDLP ruled the roost FF stayed out.
Why keep a dog and bark yourself? With the decline of the SDLP, Fianna Fail had no alternative but to carry the standard itself. It cannot have northern nationalists taking a line different from that of the Irish government.
It will, therefore, be FF’s aim to become the dominant party in the north by winning back the tens of thousands of nationalists who have stayed at home for the last decade, unwilling to vote for SF but dissatisfied with the SDLP’s lacklustre, limp-wristed posture and gallery of mediocrities, a party whose twin maxims are hot air rises and dead wood floats.
It’s a typical Bertie Ahern political masterstroke. He’s about to steal Sinn Féin’s political clothes. Fianna Fail will become a 32-county party preventing Sinn Féin from being the sole owner of that title.
More importantly FF, not Sinn Féin, will be on course to have ministers from north and south sitting across from each other in the North-South Ministerial Council and on the all-Ireland bodies. There will even be FF ministers in the north deciding how to spend Dublin money on the north’s infrastructure. No wonder the very thought has given poor old Sir Reg never-to-be-MP Empey conniptions.
The great thing about the move is that neither Sinn Féin nor the SDLP can complain about Fianna Fail organising on an all-Ireland basis even if, in the case of the SDLP, its own demise is a necessary requirement for the arrival of Fianna Fail.