Northern Ireland

Late request leaves SDLP’s New Ireland Commission absent from Fianna Fáil ard fheis

Observers argue that relations between Fianna Fáil and SDLP have deteriorated significantly

The SDLP's New Ireland Commission was declined a late request for space at Fianna Fáil's ard fheis

“Short notice” is being blamed for the failure of the SDLP’s constitutional change project to have a presence at last weekend’s Fianna Fáil ard fheis.

While representatives from the New Ireland Commission secured an exhibitor’s stand at the corresponding Fine Gael conference a week earlier, following a similar eleventh hour request, Micheál Martin’s party was unable to accommodate SDLP representatives at Friday and Saturday’s event in Dublin.

Both the New Ireland Commission and Fianna Fáil have insisted the former’s absence was due to practical considerations, however, some observers argue that it highlights how far the latter’s relationship with the SDLP has deteriorated.

The New Ireland Commission’s failure to secure space at last weekend’s ard fheis comes a matter of weeks after Mr Martin addressed the Alliance Party conference dinner in Belfast.

In 2019, Fianna Fáil and the SDLP announced what the respective leaders referred to as a “historic” partnership.

The cross-border link-up involved setting up a “joint working group” to develop new policies underpinned by “detailed polling and research”.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and his Fianna Fáil counterpart Micheál Martin at the launch of the two parties' partnership in 2019. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and his Fianna Fáil counterpart Micheál Martin at the launch of the two parties' partnership in 2019. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON

The parties also pledged to work together to “provide enhanced research, electoral and organisational capacity”.

But within two years, the partnership was already falling apart amid disquiet in both camps.

It was declared officially over in September 2022.

Former Fianna Fáil strategist Derek Mooney said he was “disheartened” to hear Mr Martin quote late SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon in his keynote speech “while simultaneously pulling the plug on partnership with Mallon’s party”.

The one-time government adviser claimed the New Ireland Commission was not welcome at the ard fheis because “some senior Fianna Fáil party figures did not like the idea of a prominent stand highlighting unity, as it risked distracting from the party leader’s own Shared Island policy.

“The apparent cold shouldering of the New Ireland Commission is consistent with the current leadership’s disapproval of Ireland’s Future, and just as short sighted,” Mr Mooney said.

Fianna Fáil said the New Ireland Commission’s request for a stand at the ard fheis “came very late with only a few days to go to the event” and it was therefore not possible to facilitate it.

The party said senior members of the SDLP, including leader Colum Eastwood, were invited to last weekend’s conference and that it was hoped the New Ireland Commission would be present at next year’s ard fheis. Fianna Fáil said there was no basis to Mr Mooney’s remarks and that they were “nothing more than a continuation of his long-standing criticism” of the party he resigned from four years ago.

A spokesperson for the New Ireland Commission said a late request was made to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil for exhibitor space at their ard fheiseanna to “engage with their members” on its work.

“This is aimed at building on productive meetings we have had with political representatives of both parties already,” the spokesperson said.

“We fully understand that it was not possible to accommodate the commission in Dublin last weekend but look forward to continuing our programme of engagement with all parties, which includes an event hosted by Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne in Dublin next month.”