Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Name that archipelago

Over at Slugger, the news that Fianna Fail is to organise in Ulster has drawn a fair amount of comment.

When people are playing political postman's knock, it's always interesting to see what you can see. Most of the comment assumes that it's a done deal. I don't. The idea that an abstentionist FF could organise effectively in the north as an all-Ireland party is as proven as Sinn Féin’s ability to organise effectively in the south. They may try, but I'll wager that they won't succeed.

Yet if Sluggers’ comments are to be believed, the SDLP have already resigned themselves to the certainty of FF success and have agreed to decommission their party. All units have – if you go along with what you read here – been instructed accordingly.

On the other hand, the UUP’s Reg Empey says that FF’s move is “the last thing we need.”
“It will fuel demands from unionists to seek further links with mainland parties as a counterbalance to the Fianna Fail move.”
Reg shouldn't worry. Here's why:
  • I can’t think of an example of where a political party from one territory – at a time of political change – has successfully exported itself to another one. Labour didn’t stand in the six counties – not only because the didn’t want to (though some of us did), but because it would be fruitless. We would have lost. FF have long claimed to be a 32 county organisation, but (and this may be true of FF more than most) it’s defining features have always been bureaucratic and personal, and it’s occasional ruptures are rarely ones based upon principle.
  • When you think about the concept of a pragmatic centre-right party practicing abstentionism in a multilateral political environment, it will probably make your head hurt. And if an enterprise is complex enough to make your head hurt, it stands to reason: It probably isn’t going to happen.
  • FF isn’t enterprising in that way. The incentives for standing in the north may not be that enticing. The SDLP or SF may roll over in principle, but their people wouldn’t. It would be a scrap, and no-one really likes a scrap when there’s nothing at stake. They would have to compete with individual representatives – people with careers – for their jobs. Votes would be split and opponents would surge through the middle.
  • FF are a successful entity with their own internal templates. They may not have one for governance in the north - either in Stormont, or in any of the reformed local authorities that are planned. The tail would have to wag very hard to get the attention of this particular dog, and FF may not always bask in the electoral sun as it has with Bertie in charge. They may always have bigger fish to fry.
Leaving aside the fact that any sober exercise in political soothsaying would conclude that the reality will not reflect any of the wild predictions, I'd disagree with Empey about the undesirability of this. If there’s anything that this archipelago needs more, it’s cross-border organisation by political parties.

The idea of ‘Unionist’ parties seeking some kind of acceptance and dialogue with any political party that is part of any other patch of The Union would do Norn Irn (and Unionism) no end of good.

There are other potential benefits. In the unlikely event of FF actually running credible candidates in the occupied six, it could – hopefully – clarify what many of us have suspected for some time; that the SDLP are not suitable partners for Labour in the Party of European Socialists. If the SDLP seek an accommodation with FF, it may turn out that the SDLP are, objectively, the moderately right-wing catholic national populist party that some have suspected them of being for a while.

On another front, I would welcome a merger between the Labour Party on both sides of the Irish Sea – and organising in the northern six counties of Ireland. The logic of devolution is of more decentralised political parties – less rigid alliances of the kind that the European Parliament enjoys.

Either way, throughout the 20th Century, Ireland was cursed by political parties that eclipsed the wider historical factors that affect everyone’s lives. A future where the Irish people of all stripes can vote for a non-sectarian pan-national party of democratic socialist inclinations is a good one. Admittedly, it is a future that will probably never arrive.

On a more prosaic note, as someone who has always been left a bit cold by the competing nationalisms in these isles, the idea of an emerging decentralised entity of semi-autonomous regions is an attractive one. If Bertie is so ambitious, he could go one step further and invite England to rejoin The Union on new equal terms. He could contest Finchley and Golders Green.

The only problem I can see with it is what we name it. The Caledonian, Hibernian and Anglo-Saxon Archipelago is a bit of a mouthful, innit?


Deaglan said...

Hi Paul,

Interesting post. A few quick points:

I think FF would have a good chance in the North (as opposed to SF in the South) in that they could deliver tangible 'gains' (e.g. presidential voting rights, Oireachtas representation) for northern nationalists. This is because FF is woven into the fabric of the Republic in a way that SF are not.

My own personal experience of the SDLP is that, quelle surprise, it is primarily a nationalist party. With the 'left/right' division between FG and FF being almost indistinguishable these days, I can't imagine SDLP voters turning down a pact with FF (AKA voting for the Republic to operate, shadow form, in NI). FF is infinetly adaptable, and can appeal to conservative Catholics if need be. There are no Civil War hang-ups in the North.

As for Irish Labour - please, it's a 'labour' party without any labour, a middle-class talking shop with ex-Sticks at the helm. I doubt they'd do any better in the North than the British Labour Party.

Oh, and FF DO organise in Ulster ( Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal anyway).


Paulie said...

"..FF DO organise in Ulster ( Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal anyway)."

Ha! I nearly corrected that one myself (the Slugger link and UTV both say 'Ulster' and not 'the occupied six'. But then I thought 'what are comments boxes for?' ;-)

I suppose my question-mark is partly over the concept of 'northern nationalists' who see FF as an expression of their own position. Aren't 'northern nationalists' more likely to be 'northern anti-unionists'? Is it not just the more idealistic fringe who would take their 'nationalism' to the logical conclusion? (I'm asking because I don't know the answer - this isn't a rhetorical question).

I also suspect that - while you're right in your generalisation about SDLP voters, that you are indeed making a generalisation. Many of the SDLP's electoral successes involve a multi-headed coalition. There will undoubtedly be *some* SDLP voters who can't stomach FF or who may be evolving in a different direction altogether (FG even?). Losing 10% of your vote can lose you more than 10% of your seats - and this means human beings losing their jobs / seats. Thus my suggestion that the SDLP will not really roll over as quickly as it *says* it will. Breaking political eggs rarely results in the omlette that was intended, that's all I'm really saying.

And finally, I fully accept your point about Labour. I'd like to think that a dominant democratic socialist party is possible though. Is it possible that left-wing unionism and an SDLP rump could one day teach the world to sing? Can't an old man be allowed to dream?

Deaglan said...

"Aren't 'northern nationalists' more likely to be 'northern anti-unionists'? Is it not just the more idealistic fringe who would take their 'nationalism' to the logical conclusion?"

I'm not sure I understand your point about being 'anti-northern unionist' but I'm minded about Dr Eamon Phoneix writing that republicans (or the nationalist elecotrate in general) should engage with the most "successful part of the republican project, the state in the south and west of this island". Having the option to vote FF in the North would be such an engagement by northern nationalists - builing tangible political ties with the Republic. If that means being 'anti-northern unionist' well, I suppose it is - nationalism and unionism primarily want two different things.

Point taken about SDLP being a coalition with people who'd rather boke than pal up with FF - I'm sure they'll lose some peeps if FF take them over. I don't think there'll be an FG option; FG don't remotely look like joining the fray - but their allegience is not to Ireland but to the (26-co) Irish state - they don't even hide it. Nordie nationalists don't come into their thinking (Austin Currie excepted I suppose!)

"Is it possible that left-wing unionism and an SDLP rump could one day teach the world to sing?"

Ach who knows? I couldn't see that musical group lasting too long though - however, Gerry Fitt was an oul whizz on the harmonica - 'The Boys of Wexford' was a favourite apparently.

Paulie said...

"I'm not sure I understand your point about being 'anti-northern unionist'"

You're right not to - I didn't phrase it properly. I mean that people who vote SDLP (or even occasionally SF) are sometimes anti Unionist rather than pro-nationalist. I'm sure that there is a gap between people who don't want Unionist domination (and who want to use their vote to limit Unionist representation in the North) and those who positively WANT a closer bond with the 26-co.

I'm suggesting that politicians often mistake votes for conviction. Many people vote Conservative without being conservative. They vote Labour here in England without being socialists. And they may vote SDLP or even SF without wanting a 32 county republic. The thinking that the SDLP will roll over and that FF will automatically work as a force in the 6 counties seems to me to be partly based on this fallacy.

Apropos of nothing, The Dubliners played a very decent version of the Ould Orange Flute.

Deaglan said...

"I mean that people who vote SDLP (or even occasionally SF) are sometimes anti Unionist rather than pro-nationalist."

Maybe - but I doubt FF will play on that and campaign in the communalist way that SF do.

There's no doubt though that sectarianism will be an unpleasant new factor for FF to deal with if they make the move, ruthless and all as they are as a party themselves.

You're right on the SDLP though; I don't think it will roll over to have it's belly tickeled - but FF don't emabrk on things to play second fiddle...if Bertie has announced that they'll go North, then they mean f--king business. My money will be on a takeover / merger at some stage. I know one SDLP MLA who would be very, very pro-FF.

Oul Orange Flute; wasn't that a party piece of the late Tómas O'Fiach?

Gotta go do some work.