SDLP to hold conference in Newry on Fianna Fáil partnership plans
THE SDLP is to hold a special conference in Newry next month to decide on proposals for a new partnership with Fianna Fáil.
It emerged as party leaders Colum Eastwood and Micheál Martin are set to make a joint announcement in Belfast today on a future working relationship.
The move follows many months of talks between the parties, fuelling speculation of a possible merger.
But both parties have downplayed suggestions of a merger, with an expectation instead that they will announce a schedule for a closer working relationship and a shared policy platform.
Prospective candidates for May's council elections in Northern Ireland have reportedly been told they will still stand under the SDLP banner.
The SDLP will hold a special conference on February 9 in the Canal Court Hotel, Newry, where members are expected to vote on the plans.
SDLP leader Mr Eastwood and Fianna Fáil leader Mr Martin are expected to be joined by party assembly members and TDs for today's announcement in Belfast city centre.
Niall Collins, Fianna Fáil's foreign affairs and trade spokesman, said its parliamentary party on Tuesday night "fully endorsed" the plan for a partnership with the SDLP.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, he said: "The talks, as you know, have been going on for a period of time and we received a briefing on that last night, and the proposal on the table to form a partnership is fully endorsed by the parliamentary party."
He would not confirm if Fianna Fáil will field candidates in any Stormont assembly or Westminster elections.
"We are not going to get in to that at the moment. Those are issues the party leaders will be able to deal with tomorrow," he said.
Mr Eastwood briefed SDLP members and MLAs about the talks at a meeting of the party's management committee on Tuesday night.
Some SDLP members have said they would oppose any merger, including Claire Hanna who said she would not join Fianna Fáil.
The South Belfast MLA, and the SDLP's Brexit spokesperson, previously hit out at how the plans have been handled and said there had been "no serious attempt" to engage members in any changes.
SDLP West Tyrone MLA Daniel McCrossan said the party is not going away, and the plans are about "moving to an all-Ireland dimension as one movement".
He told the BBC the plans are a "big change" and while he had concerns, he felt "this was the right way to go".
Lisa Chambers, Fianna Fáil's Brexit spokesperson, told the BBC: "We are not merging, it is a partnership. We will retain our distinct identities."
In October last year, a row erupted in Fianna Fáil after some senior party members announced independent councillor Sorcha McAnespy as a Fianna Fáil candidate for the north's council elections.
The announcement was made at a meeting in Co Tyrone, but Fianna Fáil headquarters later issued a statement saying the party had made "no decision" on contesting the election.
Galway West TD Eamon Ó Cuív and Senator Mark Daly were later sacked from senior positions in the party for their role in the 'rogue' launch.