Party systems often seem rigid and immutable—until they are not. Change sometimes comes from within the country itself—one political party might lose touch with society, causing its support network to migrate to another party apparently better able to represent its interests. Other times society itself changes, and a shift in the conditions which caused one party (or a set of parties) to dominate the system cause the public’s voting preferences to change similarly. Still other times an event of international significance might have a ripple effect which shakes the party system and leads inadvertently to the decline of old parties and the rise of new ones. Elements of all of these have been present in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland since the end of the twentieth century, and a party system that once seemed stubbornly fixed has undergone a remarkable degree of change.
In December, Fianna Fáil announced that a phased merger with Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) would occur over the next year. Although the subsequent, official announcement downgraded it to a “partnership” in which both parties would retain their independence, neither SDLP leader Colum Eastwood nor Fianna Fáil leader Mícheál Martin explicitly ruled out the possibility of a formal merger in the future. The move itself is hardly a surprise—the parties have enjoyed a close working relationship since the SDLP’s foundation in 1970, and rumours of a potential merger have been commonplace since at least the early 2000s.
The partnership would give the SDLP access to the resources and support network that comes with being part of an all-island political party which should add a jolt of energy to its campaigns and make it more competitive in local elections. For Fianna Fáil, it is a chance to contest elections on a national scale and more genuinely present itself as the island’s premier republican party.
Fianna Fáil and the SDLP each have illustrious histories in their respective domains. The SDLP emerged out of the activism of the 1960s civil rights movement and dominated nationalist politics throughout the Troubles. It spearheaded several of the political initiatives during the peace process, and many of the ideas enshrined in the concluding Good Friday Agreement were the brainchild of its long-time leader, John Hume. Fianna Fáil grew out of the anti-Treaty faction of Sinn Féin in the aftermath of the Civil War, and after spending half a decade on the opposition benches, the party led by Éamon de Valera came to dominate and shape Irish politics for the remainder of the twentieth century. Both parties enjoyed close relations during their respective reigns, creating a de facto alliance of constitutional nationalism that traversed the border.
But both parties have been negatively impacted by the changes that have occurred since 1998. In Northern Ireland, the end of the Provisional IRA’s armed campaign removed a stigma which allowed Sinn Féin to extend itself beyond the working class districts of Belfast and Derry and attract a broader range of nationalist opinion. Over time, the SDLP fell out of favour with voters who increasingly viewed it as static, outdated, and unable to effect change. In 2003, Sinn Féin finally surpassed the SDLP as the largest nationalist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, a position it has only consolidated since.
When Sinn Féin first contested elections in the Republic in 1986, republican strategists recognised that the party’s narrow ‘Brits Out’ programme would not appeal to the southern electorate, and since then it has worked to broaden its platform by adopting a series of progressive positions outside the traditional scope of nationalist politics. The party’s fortunes improved marginally until the 2011 general election, when it co-opted the anti-austerity movement and used it to propel itself into the political mainstream. Its fortunes continued to increase at the 2016 general election, at which it surpassed Labour as the third largest party in the Republic and placed itself on the cusp of overtaking Fianna Fáil as the country’s second largest.
Present trends suggest that Sinn Féin’s popularity will continue to rise, meaning the threat it poses will persist into the foreseeable future. The Fianna Fáil-SDLP partnership, then, is not the amalgamation of the two dominant forces in Irish nationalism that it would have been twenty years ago, but rather a fraught (if not somewhat belated) manoeuvre by two parties whose fortunes have declined considerably over the previous decade and who see a partnership as one way to remain relevant in a rapidly changing political arena.
The partnership does present inherent risks, however. Early reports suggested that the parties would eventually merge under the Fianna Fáil banner, and despite assurances from both party leaderships to the contrary, some delegates within the SDLP fear that a formal merger is, indeed, the intended (or inevitable) outcome anyway. While that thought is unsettling to those who witnessed and supported the historical dominance of the SDLP throughout its existence, it will also be used to frame the partnership as an attempt by a southern party to meddle in northern affairs—a scenario most northern nationalists despise.
Although Fianna Fáil might face accusations of diverting crucial party resources to supporting elections outside its traditional realm, it will also be entering into a political arena in which it is not only unfamiliar, but which is already the home turf of Sinn Féin. The advantage in this case would go to Sinn Féin, and if the first northern electoral performance in which Fianna Fáil plays a direct role is underwhelming, it could have negative consequences for the party in subsequent elections south.
Of course, all of these risks are mitigated by the fact that this is a partnership—the SDLP will (at least temporarily) maintain its structural and nominal independence and it will spearhead electioneering in Northern Ireland. But broadly speaking, the partnership is the latest sign of a twenty-first century Ireland undergoing rapid social, political, and economic change, all of which have combined to shift the electorate’s preferences and upend a political system that once seemed unchangeable. Few details are known about the partnership itself, but it is certain that it will reshape the political landscape by realigning nationalist politics north and south which could have important implications for Irish political society in the future.