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Irish Labour leader says SDLP must break with European socialists if it formalises ties with Fianna Fáil

Brendan Howlin said greater ties between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil would be 'regressive'

THE LEADER of Irish Labour believes the SDLP must break its ties with Europe's umbrella socialist grouping if it builds a formal relationship with Fianna Fáil.

Brendan Howlin told The Irish News that Micheál Martin's party was at times "right wing" and that any merger with the SDLP would likely result in a "takeover" of the northern party by its larger southern counterpart.

The Wexford TD's comments come as a former SDLP leader endorsed plans for closer ties between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil.

Former South Down MP Margaret Ritchie, who in 2010 said there would be no merger with Fianna Fáil "on my watch", has advocated a "partnership" with Micheál Martin's party.

"This is a partnership and a partnership is about working together for both nationalist and unionist on this island," she told the BBC.

Ms Ritchie did not characterise the new SDLP-Fianna Fáil relationship as a merger.

The two parties are widely expected to announce plans for greater co-operation, including joint policy platforms, in the coming weeks.

Mr Howlin said it was up to SDLP members to decide on the party's future and he conceded that many would advocate stronger links with Fianna Fáil.

But he said such a move would be "regressive" and that many members of Colum Eastwood's party would oppose it.

"Fianna Fáil is not a social democratic party - in may ways it is a chameleon party that changes depending on the mood of the time," he said.

"At times it has been quite right wing, for example when they were aligned with the Progressive Democrats, but at other times it has embraced social democratic policy."

Historically, as members of the Party of European Socialists, Labour and the SDLP have been regarded as sister parties, while Fianna Fáil is aligned to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

Mr Howlin characterised the relationship between his party and the SDLP as a "very deep and important linkage" and one that meant Labour never organised north of border.

He said his party would "support" those SDLP members and candidates who sought to continue to promote social democracy but he does not envisage Labour contesting elections north of the border.

The Labour leader said Fianna Fáil's association with liberals and democrats across Europe meant it had a "different value set that many social democrats could not embrace".

He said if the SDLP was to align itself with Mr Martin's party it "would not be appropriate" for it to continue its association with Europe's social democratic umbrella group.

"If there is a formal link with Fianna Fáil that would certainly raise fundamental questions about its continued participation in the Party of European Socialists," he said.

Mr Howlin said he would be "saddened" to see a break in a cross-border relationship that was forged by John Hume and had been "extraordinarily important in the peace process".

He said a merger between the two parties would be a "takeover".

"I don't think anybody would see it as anything other than a takeover by Fianna Fáil though I believe that is a few steps away," he said.

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