Michéal Martin hopes to conclude Fianna Fáil/SDLP merger talks 'soon'

Michéal Martin said Fianna Fáil always had a 'social democratic dimension'. Picture by Mal McCann

MICHÉAL Martin hopes to bring the current phase of talks between his party and the SDLP to a conclusion in the very near future.

With little over six months until the Northern Ireland local government elections, the Fianna Fáil leader told The Irish News that he wants his party to play a role in a "new agenda" in northern politics, where the focus is "not solely on the constitutional question but also addressing bread and butter issues".

In 2014, Mr Martin said it was Fianna Fáil's intention to stand candidates for election north of the border, with next May's council elections earmarked as the most likely opportunity.

In recent months his party has been in talks with the SDLP about greater co-operation and a potential merger.

Three weeks ago, Omagh councillor Sorcha McAnespy was unveiled as a party candidate in the local government elections. However, it quickly emerged that she did not have the leadership's endorsement.

Fianna Fail TD Éamon Ó Cuív and Senator Mark Daly have since been sacked from their positions as the party's rural affairs spokesman and deputy leader in the Seanad, respectively, over their role in the 'rogue' candidate launch.

"What happened in Omagh was wrong, I have been very clear on that, I have taken action," Mr Martin said yesterday during a visit to Belfast.

"No one can self-declare as a candidate."

He was non-committal on whether Ms McAnespy, a member of the party's ard comhairle, would be disciplined.

"I think people have understood and learned lessons from it in terms of how to proceed into the future," he said.

Mr Martin cited the sensitivity around the current talks with the SDLP, during which the parties have exchanged documents, as he declined to say what he regarded as an ideal scenario when they conclude.

"We are conscious that they have to talk to their people," he said, in his most candid discussion to date about the potential cross-border link-up."

He said Fianna Fáil had carried out a lot of work ahead of the talks and had identified a "significant middle ground" in the north that was "not having its voice heard".

Quoting his predecessor Seán Lemass, who described Fianna Fáil as the Republic's "true labour party", Mr Martin said there had always been a "social democratic dimension" to the party.

"I think in terms of political ideology and narrative, there are many similarities between us and the SDLP," he said.

Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement there was a need for a "new political agenda that endeavours to make the current structures work".

"Fianna Fáil has a role to play in that but the precise shape and nature has yet to be determined," he said.

"Hopefully we can bring this phase of discussions to a close shortly, though I don't wish to put a timeframe on it."

He described it as an "evolving situation"

Asked whether developing formal links with the SDLP would lead to a schism in the northern party, Mr Martin said: "We are taking everything into consideration."

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