Time to Merge

As yet another pro-Union party is launched to further split the Unionist vote, former Blanket columnist and Radical Unionist commentator, Dr John Coulter, uses his Ireland Eye column in the British Labour Party's Tribune magazine to explore the concept if it is time for republicans and nationalists to unite and form a single party in the North. This is a longer version of his column which appeared in Tribune on 31 May, 2013.    

While unionists and republicans have locked horns over the controversial Special Advisors Bill at Stormont, the real question hangs over the future of the supposed moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party and the need for the SDLP and Sinn Fein to merge.
The Bill would place severe restrictions on the recruitment of the estimated £90,000 salaried ministerial special advisors, essential ensuring that ex-terrorist inmates could not hold the coveted positions.
The unionists are supporting the Bill to put one over on Sinn Fein who have traditionally promoted ex-IRA prisoners into the ranks of the republican party.

Finding significant roles for such prisoners is vital to ensure that Sinn Fein retains electoral control of its natural working class republican heartlands, especially with the ongoing terrorist threat from the various dissident factions.
To guarantee the Bill will be blocked, the IRA apologist party needs the help of the SDLP. While there is much speculation the move has caused severe tensions within the moderate party, it has also rekindled the debate for the need for a single nationalist party.

Sinn Fein has what the SDLP needs – an all-island identity as talks of a merger between the SDLP and Southern parties, such as Irish Labour and Fine Gael, run aground. The SDLP has what Sinn Fein seeks – total control of the electorally lucrative Catholic middle class, especially after a recent Westminster by-election this year which saw Sinn Fein’s vote collapse by over 5,000 votes in spite of a republican victory.
With increasing talk of unionist co-operation in the Protestant community, nationalist seats could be lost if unionists begin fielding agreed candidates. However, don’t underestimate how politically astute the nationalist electorate can be.
At the last Commons General Election, in spite of a unionist unity candidate and a split nationalist vote, Sinn Fein held Fermanagh South Tyrone with a handful of votes, and Catholic voters deserted the high profile SDLP candidate in thousands.
To bring about a merger, the SDLP must become more overtly republican, converting its style into the 1970s Irish Independence Party, which challenged the SDLP for the hard line nationalist vote.
Sinn Fein, on the other hands, must abandon both its traditional abstentionist policy of not taking its Westminster seats given that Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the SDLP and even ‘dump the monarchy’ Labour MPs all take their seats.
Sinn Fein has also got to ditch its policy of pushing former Provisional IRA prisoners onto the ballot papers. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Fein has politically cultivated a new generation of well-educated young republicans who have never served their traditional apprenticeships in the IRA.
Throughout the Troubles, the republican leadership pushed the concept of ‘the ballot paper in one hand, and the Armalite rifle in the other’. The new generation of republican politicians are known as ‘The Draft Dodgers’, because of their lack of contact with the IRA. Their motto tends to be ‘the ballot paper in one hand, and an honours degree in the other’.
Time is not on the side of both organisations. With dissident republicans still launching terrorist attacks against the security forces, it is only a matter of time before the dissidents have sufficient strength to enter the political arena.

For the SDLP, given the slippage in its vote, the expected 2016 Stormont poll could see the party reduced to a handful of Assembly members - a mirror image of what is happening within the equally election-battered Ulster Unionists.
While Sinn Fein has invaded the Catholic middle class voters in a bid to become the largest Stormont party, and thereby lay claim to the prestigious First Minister’s post, there is still considerable doubt as to whether Sinn Fein can maintain middle class and upper class Catholic support.

Although the dissidents are not sufficiently well organised to mount a significant electoral challenge to Sinn Fein, there is also the danger the party could suffer from the general political malaise which has now smitten unionism –voter apathy.
One visionary nationalist thinker, Declan O’Loan, the former North Antrim SDLP MLA, got his political knuckles severely rapped when he suggested the concept of a single nationalist party.
Hopefully, the current SDLP leadership will now see the wisdom of O’Loan’s vision, rather than by reacting as they did by temporarily suspending him!
The other pressure facing those who want a merged nationalist party is that the Belfast City Hall Union flag debacle has now mobilised the Protestant working class on a level similar to the American Civil Rights movement in the Sixties Southern states.
At the very least, Sinn Fein and the SDLP need to relaunch the so-called Pan Nationalist Front and select which party is best poised to hold or take various seats.
The real test of nationalist unity will come in the 2014 European poll. Sinn Fein is again expected to top the poll, but with so much unionist disunity, there is the possibility the republican family could snatch two of Northern Ireland three MEPs.
With polls suggesting a united Ireland is a myth because of the collapse of the Southern economy, the only way that aspiration to be progressed is for the launch of a single republican party. The key question is, is the level of compromise which both parties will have to make too high a price?

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