The SDLP, the second largest nationalist party in the north of Ireland led by Colum Eastwood, is at risk of rapid disintegration following a highly controversial decision to enter into “partnership” with the 26 County Fianna Fáil party, led by Micheal Martin.
At a conference in Newry on Saturday, a special SDLP party conference voted in favour of the leadership’s plans for a closer working relationship with the more conservative Fianna Fáil.
It is clearly a marriage of convenience for the centre-left SDLP, who are in grave financial difficulty after its core support base was decimated by Sinn Féin’s move toward constitutional nationalism.
SDLP delegates voted by 121 votes to 53 to support the leadership’s proposal. It is thought a merger of the SDLP into Fianna Fáil will be the eventual outcome of the process.
“Our new departure is about offering a platform for change right across Ireland,” said Eastwood (pictured left, with Martin, right). “We recognise that we cannot convince people that we know the way forward if we are continually looking back. This generation of SDLP leaders wants to write a new chapter and create a new legacy.”
For its part, Fianna Fáil is clearly delighted to have an easy option for its long-promised expansion into the Six Counties, but made no comment on the vote.
There have been warnings of SDLP resignations in the coming weeks and months, but one senior figure has already stepped back. Assembly member Claire Hanna has quit as the party’s Brexit spokeswoman and resigned the party whip. She will remain an SDLP member.
Ms Hanna said she remained “unconvinced” that the partnership “is the right vehicle with which to deliver the non-sectarian, transparent and social democratic new Ireland I believe in”.
She added that it had not been an easy decision to make and she had “thought long and hard about the outcome and implications”.
Six former party chairs proposed a motion at the end of the meeting to have the leadership’s proposal rewritten, but the motion was not accepted by the chair.
Some party councillors are said to be planning to quit after the local elections. Declan Boyle, who sits on Belfast City Council as an independent after quitting the party in 2017, has said that a number of SDLP councillors are “standing on a ticket they don’t believe in”.
Belfast councillors Donal Lyons and Tim Attwood are among those said to be ready to go. “Is it a case of not having the confidence in their convictions to stand for what they believe in?” he asked.
Sinn Féin has dismissed the new partnership as a lurch to the right for the SDLP, but it has embraced the move as a positive development.
“I welcome the further development of all-Ireland politics at a time when the prospect of Irish unity is centre stage,” said the party’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill.
“This political pact also gives the people of Ireland north and south a clear choice between the progressive forward-looking politics of Sinn Féin and the right-wing austerity politics of Fianna Fáil.”