The SDLP-Fianna Fáil merger shows youth is the future, until it’s inconvenient
Something new has appeared in both realms of politics on the island of Ireland, which in itself seems like a minor miracle. We’re used to Stormont existing as a pyrrhic construct and any political twist or turn in Irish domestic politics saturated and rendered dull under the aegis of Brexit.
A ‘merger’ between between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil is now official following the vote in favour of a motion by 121 party delegates to 53 at the SDLP party conference over the weekend.
I say merger, but it is still unclear what the new partnership, collaboration or whatever you call it will look like exactly. But it’s more than a simple pact. Naturally, this new shift for the SDLP has received top-billing from our contemporary political pundits North and South.
Dublin takes have pointed to how this could help Fianna Fáil and shake up the Irish unity debate. In Northern Ireland the merger news has been woven into the conversation around the so-called pan-nationalist front and how the move could spark pan-unionist efforts.
One thing missing from this whole story has been the dissenting progressive younger voices within the SDLP and its youth wing who have spoken out against the merger. They are key to the party’s future and should be taken into consideration.
The use of “progressive” to describe anyone in the SDLP could be controversial, however. As a supposedly centre-left party, it took until 2018 for the SDLP to liberalise its position on abortion in Northern Ireland, nevermind supporting free, safe & legal access to abortion services.
However, a number of members of the youth wing of the party supported this stance, with some more vocal on it than others. They were key in the path to a ‘conscience’ vote on the issue even if it eventually fell short of their overall aim.
Supporting free, safe and legal access to abortion services is one of the policies which distinguishes a party as progressive, particularly in the Northern Ireland context. While the access to and legality of abortion is one particular issue, it is a cataclysmic one in terms of its significance to modern Ireland across the political factions, and is part of the contemporary struggle for rights, equality and social justice, principles which the SDLP’s past glories are indebted to and to which the party claims to still serve today.
It is through these younger progressive voices in favour of campaigning for this issue that what the SDLP has to lose from this merger has become acutely articulated but these perspectives and their significance aren’t as visible in the editorials and political analysis so far. Instead, their individual truths are captured in online platforms beyond the mainstream of broadsheet journalism.
There have been several reactions that have reasserted the fundamental tenets and beliefs of what their motivations for joining and campaigning for the party were in the first place. The new merger has prompted a very visible ideological rebuttal to the direction their party is moving in.
Matthew Carson, the now-resigned head of SDLP Youth LGBT+, can be read on Northern Slant on how the merger is an act against the very appeal of the SDLP as a party for someone with his Unionist background.
Leah Rea, vice-chair of SDLP Youth, published her speech against the proposal for a merger on Twitter citing how it would place the constitutional question above socio-economic principles, while the now-resigned Chair of SDLP Youth Matthew Corr also shared the joint-resignation statement of the Chairs of SDLP Youth, SDLP Women and SDLP LGBT+.
One of the most pertinent points I have read which has been overlooked in popular political analysis came from Patch Thompson, the now-resigned SDLP Youth Executive, who perfectly illustrated the dilemma the merger poses for the SDLP in an article for Labour List. He wrote of the party’s links to the Party of European Socialists (PES) in the European Parliament, to whom the SDLP is a sister-party and the Fianna Fáil merger would result in an alliance with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) a centrist party to the right of the staunchly left politics of PES in the largest democratic institution in Europe.
The Social Democratic Labour Party brandishes the image as *the* social democratic party for Northern Ireland – outward facing, engaging with Irish political parties outside of Northern Ireland, fully engaged with its party membership of PES and proud of its socialist heritage and its iron-clad legacy of brokering the Good Friday Agreement with the Ulster Unionist Party and of spearheading the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland.
Rightfully, this is a legacy that should still be proudly heralded in a modern context, however it does not guarantee a secure footing for the party’s significance today if it cannot fully support and define itself in the current progressive campaigning of today. Particularly at this current moment, with the SDLP’s losses from Westminster in the 2017 UK General Election another casualty in the collective defeat of the left’s establishment parties across Europe in national elections throughout 2017 and 2018 in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.
SDLP Youth and the SDLP’s younger voices have been an interesting political grouping to watch – with the hope that their views and efforts to influence the party in a truly progressive direction in the longer-term – but if this series of resignations tell us anything it’s that the merger, at the very least, has shaken up the fundamental social democratic values of the party.
It’s true that Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin proclaimed that he was in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment prior to last year’s referendum, as did SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, but both leaders were subject to much internal party controversy. Beyond having a lot to say on the hot-ticket nationalist discourse on Brexit, will there be enough room for continuing the evolution of the party’s progressive principles to the benefit of Northern Ireland?
Or are we going to see more of the reactionary power-play politics which we’re used to in the six counties, only this time with the added political spats of the Dáil Éireann spilling out into the Border Counties, the North Coast, East of the Bann and into Belfast South?
Seeing Young Fine Gael establish its first Northern Ireland branch, with an opening address from former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell on the same day that the merger was voted in seems, depressingly, more than just coincidence.
Patch Thompson, the former Youth Executive, said, “The whole thing has been a mess and most members, youth or otherwise, are getting far more information from the papers than guidance from the leadership. We are often told that the youth is the future of the party, but this move feels like a leap several decades into the past.”
On top of the resignations of younger members, the resignation of Claire Hanna MLA as SDLP, party spokesperson on Brexit and party whip completes the picture of uncertainty for the party of what it will actually be on the political spectrum.
What is certain, however, is that there are suddenly a number of younger voices now feeling even more politically disenfranchised in Northern Ireland, who are yet to fully find form again in the aftermath of the merger.