The SDLP were tonight warned any formal relationship with Fianna Fáil would damage relations with other parties in the Republic of Ireland.
Enda Kenny, leader of the Opposition Fine Gael party sounded the warning about a link-up with Bertie Ahern’s party after meeting SDLP leader Mark Durkan.
While welcoming the SDLP’s recent decision to review its future role in Irish politics, the Mayo TD warned the party it could fritter away all the goodwill and support it had generated in the Republic if it merged with Fianna Fáil who, he alleged, had sidelined Mark Durkan’s party during the peace process.
“I would remind the members of the SDLP that their party has enjoyed positive relations with all parties in the Republic, giving the SDLP unprecedented access down through the years to Irish governments of all political persuasions.
“This has also resulted in cross-party political support for the SDLP.
“For our part, Fine Gael has always had a strong relationship with the SDLP.
“I would argue that, during the height of the Northern Troubles, it was Fine Gael’s policy that was closest to that of the SDLP. Former Fine Gael Taoisigh Liam Cosgrave, Garret Fitzgerald and John Bruton were insistent on the SDLP being centrally involved in all efforts towards a peace settlement.
“In recent years I have been consistently critical of the current Government for excluding and sidelining the SDLP from the negotiations on the restoration of power-sharing. In addition, members of Fine Gael have actively supported SDLP candidates for both Westminster and Assembly elections.
“Positive relations with the southern parties can be a unique selling point for the SDLP in an era of growing north-south economic and political co-operation.
“However, the SDLP membership need to know that if they decide to enter into an exclusive or formal relationship with one party, then the SDLP’s relationships with the other parties in the South will change very fundamentally. Such a move would, I believe, be politically damaging to the SDLP in the long term.”
SDLP members have debated for some time whether the party should merge with Fianna Fáil.
The clamour for a link-up increased after March’s Assembly election when Sinn Féin extended its lead over the SDLP in the battle for nationalist votes, reducing the party’s tally of Assembly seats to 16 and just one ministry in the power sharing executive.
After Bertie Ahern announced in September Fianna Fáil would be setting up a committee to look into entering politics in the North, the section of the SDLP that would favour a merger has become more vocal.
There have also been suggestions the parties could agree a candidate at the next European Parliament Elections in 2009.
However a substantial wing of the SDLP has sympathies with the Labour Party and could leave if the party links up with Fianna Fáil.
Fianna Fáil’s committee is headed by Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern and must report back by next Easter after consulting members across the Republic and nationalists north of the border.
Already the party’s youth wing Ogra Fianna Fáil has formed branches at Queen’s University in Belfast and the University of Ulster’s Magee campus in Derry.
The SDLP at its party conference earlier this month also set up a committee to consider its future role in any political realignment on the island of Ireland.
The Labour Party, which has a Northern Ireland forum, has also decided to set up a committee looking at its role in politics north of the border.