SDLP leader fuels speculation of FF merger

An SDLP working group looking at the future of the party is exploring all political options, its leader Mark Durkan insisted today.

An SDLP working group looking at the future of the party is exploring all political options, its leader Mark Durkan insisted today.

In the face of persistent speculation about a merger with Fianna Fáil, Mr Durkan was speaking to the Association of SDLP councillors’ meeting in Belfast.

He said the group looking into political realignment in Ireland had been set up under the chairmanship of former Coleraine councillor Eamon Mullan and involved himself, deputy leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell and former Stormont minister Sean Farren.

The Foyle MP said the group would be engaging not just with politicians in the Irish Republic but also unionists and others in the North.

The SDLP leader said: “Under the stewardship of Eamon Mullan (former SDLP councillor on Coleraine Borough council); comprising Denis Haughey (founder member of the SDLP and MLA for Mid-Ulster), Joe Byrne (former SDLP MLA West Tyrone), Kate Lagan (SDLP Magherfelt councillor) and Sean Farren (former finance minister and SDLP MLA for North Antrim); along with Alasdair McDonnell (deputy leader), Eddie McGrady (chairman of the party), Patsy McGlone (chief whip) and myself – and we will be asking and allowing others to contribute – our working group has begun scoping all the realities, possibilities, requirements and options for all-Ireland political development.

“Utilising the debate on realignment, we can maximise the potential for positive, constructive outreach – engaging imaginatively with parties, partners and people in the South, liaising positively with the unionist community and others in the North, talking ambitiously with all the stakeholders and policy communities in this new Ireland we want to build, focusing on the future direction of this country, as well the SDLP’s place in it – all in ways that will underwrite the very positive prospects we all now enjoy.

“Examining all the issues, implications and ideas for realignment, the working group will explore the full range of permutations in ways that underline, rather than undermine, the core values, principles and objectives of the SDLP – not least our fundamental strategy for achieving a united Ireland in which the Agreement will endure.”

There has been constant speculation that the SDLP may merge with Fianna Fáil ever since Taoiseach Bertie Ahern announced last September his party was setting up a working group to explore whether it should enter politics in the North.

Those rumours were fuelled by the appearance of Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern and Martin Mansergh, who are members of Fianna Fáil’s working group, at last year’s SDLP conference.

However while a substantial section of Mr Durkan’s party would back a merger with Fianna Fail, a significant number would be more sympathetic to the Labour Party and would almost certainly leave.

The SDLP has also been wooed by some Ulster Unionists keen to forge closer ties in the Assembly and strengthen the centre ground in Northern Ireland politics against the two largest parties – the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin.

Mr Durkan’s comments came just two days after Bertie Ahern announced his intention to quit as Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader following concerns about his private finances.

Finance Minister Brian Cowen, who is expected to replace Mr Ahern, has had strong links with the SDLP and campaigned for Mark Durkan when he won the Foyle seat at the last General Election in the North.

The SDLP leader said as well as engaging externally his working group would consult directly, openly and honestly with party members.

“We are determined to ensure that the SDLP, all that we stand for and everything that we believe in will be at the heart of the new Ireland in the future,” he said.

“We also know we need to be the heartbeat for progressive, visionary and creative politics right now.”

With the Rev Ian Paisley also due to stand down as Stormont First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader soon, Mr Durkan joked that many people would be sad that the 81-year-old’s love story with Martin McGuinness would soon be over.

With DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson expected to take charge, the SDLP leader said: “It’s going to be much less the Chuckle Brothers and much more the Brothers Grim.”

However he said whatever dramas were played out in the political process, government should not be turned into a soap opera.

“The novelty of a good working relationship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness helped to mask the fact that they have actually delivered little in their year in office,” Mr Durkan said.

The Foyle MP said how Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness get on with each other in government was irrelevant.

What mattered more, he said, was whether they would do as First and Deputy First Ministers what they were elected to do.

Mr Durkan continued: “No-one need worry that the forthcoming Robinson/McGuinness axis will be any less stable than the one Paisley/McGuinness had.

“Even if its facade won’t be as bright and cheery, its foundations will be just as solid – built on the love of power that the DUP and Sinn Fein share.

“Where once we had Sinn Féin/IRA, now it’s Sinn Féin/DUP – colluding to watch each other’s backs and looking out for each other’s interests.

“For proof, we need look no further than their dismissive attitude towards victims and survivors in the last few days. No victim or survivor allowed a say on the very legislation that is supposed to address their needs.”

Mr Durkan also said he hoped Peter Robinson had learnt from former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble’s mistakes during the last period of devolution and wouldn’t procrastinate over the transfer of policing and justice powers.

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