Fine Gael and Northern Ireland

Over on his blog, Seymour Major brings up an interesting idea: that Fine Gael could be included in the UCUNF. I am intrigued, but think it a stretch too far.

The main problem is that the UCUNF is an explicitly Unionist project. However much some Conservatives may protest, their party has thrown in its lot with one side of the sectarian divide, and is now just another Unionist party. As I have argued before, Northern Ireland needs a party or parties which can transcend the Unionist-Nationalist divide. The UUP is nowhere near the stage where it could be described as a “post-Unionist” party, nor has it shown any inclination of moving in that direction. Indeed, in recent years they have obviously struggled with the temptation to outflank the DUP on the extreme. Fine Gael would suffer at the hands of its core supporters if it was seen to be taking sides with unreconstructed Unionists.

On the other hand, Fine Gael could easily be sold as a “post-Nationalist” party in the North if it were minded to make a few concessions to Unionist sensitivities. Its revolutionary past is ancient history in political terms, and as Seymour correctly points out it is a progressive-conservative party whose policies would be quite palatable to the moderate Unionist willing to think outside the box. Its potential appeal to moderate Nationalists shouldn’t need stating: it would be the first political party to be in government on both sides of the Border, despite Sinn Féin’s best efforts.

But to sell themselves as non-aligned in the -ism debate, they would have to enter NI politics alone, not through an alliance with an existing (i.e. compromised) political party. So would FG do it?


6 thoughts on “Fine Gael and Northern Ireland”

  1. FG operating here alone would be a novel addition to our political scene and, I reckon, potentially quite a successful one. While some SDLP voters in urban areas of Belfast and Derry may well consider themselves socialists/social democrats and cherish their links with the family of global left wing parties (though a question mark surely hangs over even that!) I doubt that many party supporters west of the Bann or in rural areas of Armagh and south Down view themselves as being all that red. So, Fine Gael operating here alone would most likely see them fill the current vacuum left for a conservative nationalist party rather than make any major inroads into the Protestant vote.

    Two additional points. First of all, there is no stomach in FG for organising up here. A moderate proposal for dipping a toe in the water and organising Young Fine Gael in the north was rejected by members of the party’s junior wing a few years back. Let’s face it, youth wings tend to be more radical and more enthusiastic for big ideas; if YFG couldn’t give a hoot about Northern Ireland then its unlikely there will be any hunger amongst the rest of the party grassroots – and especially during a recession.

    Secondly, even if they did make the bold step and compete north of the border, Fine Gael would find it hard to be taken seriously as post-nationalist. I don’t say this because I think they are sectarian, but sadly because the harsh reality of our politics would mean that for some unionists their very name would be too much of a hurdle to overcome. However, if any party from the nationalist tradition was to have a cross-community appeal then I suppose FG have just about the best opportunity. In the years since partition they have consistently opposed militant republicanism – at times using measures no unionist administration at Stormont would ever have dreamed of – and have always had a decent record of getting Protestant members (Billy Fox, Ivan Yates, Seymour Crawford, etc) elected to Dail Eireann and local councils.

    I have thought for quite some time now that a scenario in which the main parties from GB and ROI operate here alongside our own little NI-only groupings would give things the shake up that they need. Seymour’s suggestion is at the very least an interesting one. His recent postings, as well as Chekov’s at TTVOL, seem to suggest that quite a bit of thinking is still going on within the UCUNF camp about where this project is going and whereabouts it could potentially end up. I’m still optimistic that we are heading in the right direction, albeit slowly.

  2. I don’t see how you can draw a distinction between the Tories and Fine Gael; the NI Conservatives are a Unionist Party, they always have been – the same is true, only in reverse, with Fine Gael. Whilst I would agree that the UUP still tend adhere to certain divisive policies the Conservatives themselves havn’t substantively changed – the clear opposition to the idea of electoral pacts recently demonstrated that perfectly. Fine Gael are a nationalist party, almost every single statement they have issued in relation to Northern Ireland over the past few decades has made that abundantly clear. Point out the difference if you will, because I’m having a hard time seeing it.

    1. Fine Gael’s list of statements on Northern Ireland is slim to say the least. Aside from the usual platitudes, there is no sign that nationalism plays a significant role in policy. As Eoghan Harris points out here, Michael Noonan was an outlier.

      I never said that FG were post-nationalist now, merely that they had the least distance to travel. Given that they currently operate only in the Republic, it should not be a surprise that their members would tend towards nationalism. That is not to say that any putative Northern Ireland members should necessarily have the same profile. All parties are coalitions of disparate interests, after all. It’s a question of priorities.

      And the Conservatives aren’t opposed to the idea of electoral pacts, just electoral pacts with the DUP. What else is UCUNF but an electoral pact with a party that represents only one side of the sectarian divide? It just proves how little the Conservatives really understand Northern Ireland.

      1. I think he’s pointing out that Noonan was merely Fine Gael’s ‘most’ nationalist leader. I’d accept that politics is a matter of degree but it doesn’t detract from the fact that any Fine Gael statement on Northern Ireland has explicitly stated they are a nationalist party. Recognition of the principle of consent does nothing to assuage this. Every serious political party in any way connected to the Northern Ireland issue recognises the primacy of the principle of consent (even Sinn Fein – if only in principle and not in reality). The ‘usual platitudes’ seem to me to be the only thing to emerge, or that can emerge, from any Southern party re: the constitutional status of Northern Ireland; I don’t see how nationalism can play a significant role in policy any more… the constitutional question is settled, absent a significant demographic shift, as is the status of the cross-border element of Strand 2, there’s simply no longer room for a nationalist vehicle in Irish politics.

        Its an over-simplification to say that a party’s position re: Nationalism, or Unionism, automatically makes it sectarian. The Northern Ireland Tories were a pro-union party long before they ever signed up to UCUNF; even the Alliance party are nominally Unionist. Declining to take a position on whether you favour the union with Britain is a politics of rhetoric. Even if you have no ideaological commitment either way, you still have to consider the arguments either way if you want to be serious about your politics.

        The Conservatives are opposed to the idea of electoral pacts to ensure Unionist domination, its disingenuous to suggest anything else. Whilst they may have decided to form an alliance with the UUP the idea is to fight a campaign on their conservative politics, not on their support for the Union. It a work in progress trying to persuade the UUP to renege the politics of sectarianism but it seems at the minute to be succeeding – look at Major’s recent blog posts – the Catholic candidates who had resigned their nominations are starting to reconsider their stance. I think the Tories do understand Northern Ireland, its Northern Ireland that doesn’t understand them.

  3. there’s simply no longer room for a nationalist vehicle in Irish politics.

    So if nationalism is dead, why keep banging on about unionism? It just serves to turn away potential voters.

    Of course a party’s position on the Union does not automatically make it sectarian; and I am certainly not suggesting that the Conservative Party is inherently sectarian. However, by taking on a partner from one side of the sectarian divide (and pointedly not balancing it from the other side, even on a token basis) the Conservatives appear to have compromised themselves. Now it appears that UCUNF have selected Ulster Unionists for all the winnable seats, leaving the Conservatives to field a few token Catholics in places such as Foyle, where they will undoubtedly lose. I strongly suspect the Conservatives are being taken for a ride.

    As for declining to take a party position on an emotive matter, the Conservatives do this all the time on abortion. The maintenance or dissolution of the Union is not in the gift of politicians. No vote in the Assembly can make it happen. Westminster is committed to obeying the will of the people in a referendum, no matter the personal views of the government of the day. Under these circumstances, how is being explicitly Unionist in any way meaningful? Individual members may be unionist or not, as they see fit. But making it official party policy is gesture politics.

    Tories may think they understand Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland disagrees. If they were confident of being able to change this, they wouldn’t need UCUNF.

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