There is still a deafening silence from Fianna Fáil headquarters about what the party's motives were in Downpatrick on Sunday, but at least we are now starting to hear from the organisers and participants themselves.
The Irish Times has a report that cites "sources at the meeting" who reported Dermot Ahern as saying that: 'running candidates would be the ultimate objective but was careful to avoid suggestions that such an evolutionary approach represented a threat to the SDLP'.
He said the initiative for further Fianna Fáil organisation had to be local and that headquarters would respond to such an initiative. This does not explain the presence of two Front Bench ministers at a time when the government is engaged in a desperate battle to win the upcoming Lisbon referendum. Ahern's presence can be justified – he is a TD in neighbouring Louth. But O Cuiv's presence is a mystery – he is a Galway TD, best known as the Minster for Gaeltacht affairs. Admittedly his grandfather, Eamon De Valera, was Stormont MP for Down between 1921 and 1929, and again from 1933 to 1937, but this in itself is an inadequate reason for his presence on Sunday.
Members of Fianna Fáil present at the meeting in Downpatrick have stressed that the meeting was not coordinated with the SDLP, but neither was it designed to be a threat to them.
However, the high level of the party representation at the meeting, along with the inevitability of change in the near future – the SDLP's MP will be 75 next year – can only mean that Fianna Fáil are seeing an opportunity.
The SDLP have had a bad time post-GFA, and are increasingly being eclipsed by Sinn Féin. However, apart from their nationalism the two parties are quite different. Sinn Féin, despite the Armani suits, remains a party of the harder republican estates and the small farmers. The SDLP, not for nothing once tagged the 'Schoolteachers, Doctors and Lawyers Party', has tended to represent 'respectable' Catholics. If the SDLP melts down to the extent of being unable to elect MPs, then there is a constituency of middle-class Catholics who would not vote Sinn Féin, but who would no longer have a realistic alternative. In addition to the traditional SDLP voters, there are an increasing number of 'newly affluent' Catholic voters who, although of working class origin, do not feel that Sinn Féin's brand of populist socialism (or simply economic illiteracy) speaks for them. These 'newly affluent' Catholic voters include business owners, property developers, and others who aspire to build on their wealth rather than share it. Fianna Fáil is the ideal party for them, having grown from precisely the same roots in an earlier period, and now being a business-friendly party (too much, some might say).
So Fianna Fáil may have spotted a gap in the market that the SDLP was not able to fill. Their increasing presence in South Down (and other areas; Derry and Armagh have active party members) may not in itself represent a threat to the SDLP, but Fianna Fáil may be looking towards the day when the SDLP are simply too weak to defend their own seats – and then the wisdom of having already established branches and networks will be seen. Rather than directly challenge the SDLP, Fianna Fáil may simply be establishing parallel structures which would grow as the SDLP's shrink – and which would soak up the departing SDLP supporters (Dermot Ahern's "evolutionary approach"), as well as the socially mobile ex-Sinn Féin supporters. If, at the same time, some ex-unionists join, this would be an extra bonus. In a sense Fianna Fáil are acting in a very similar fashion to the Conservative Party on the other side of the community divide.
Northern Ireland is too small to support such a range of parties on each side of the divide, and it is inevitable that some will fail. On the nationalist side the eventual consolidation may leave two parties – a working class 'socialist' Sinn Féin, and a populist capitalist Fianna Fáil. Both would be 32 county parties, but Fianna Fáil would dominate at national level. Despite its current difficulties it is likely to return to government after a period in opposition – something Sinn Féin cannot promise its supporters.
If consolidation on the unionist side goes in the same direction there will be a mirror image – a working class (though not 'socialist') DUP and a clearly middle-class pro-business conservative Party (once the nonsense of UCUNF has been dispensed with). The irony then will be that the most logical partnerships will be Fianna Fáil-Conservative, or Sinn Féin-DUP. Since the GFA requires mandatory coalitions of the parties, with the top party in each block taking First Minister and Deputy First Minister posts, elections to the Assembly may start to offer real choices to the voters – a left-wing FM-DFM or a right wing FM-DFM.
As time passes the DUP and Sinn Féin may increasingly be seen as 'local' six-county parties, in contrast to the 'national' parties, which would have access to actual sovereign governmental power. In such a way the petty politics of Northern Ireland could eventually wither and with power increasingly in the hands of Dublin and London parties the chimera of de facto joint sovereignty could become a reality.
All that is a long way from a forum meeting in Downpatrick, but with the electoral situation in Northern Ireland becoming increasingly fluid, and with the next decade being a crucial period of commemoration and change, it is likely that Fianna Fáil are taking a long-term view and working to ensure that they face no unexpected and unwelcome challenges from the north. Ultimately the party's aim is to retain power in Dublin, and if it abandons the north to Sinn Féin it risks seeing them as the dominant party there, and well placed even in the south to claim the inheritance of 1916, 1918, 1919, 1921, and all of the other centenaries. A pre-emptive strike in the north, though of little value in Dublin, could ward off a more serious threat.