The mystery around Fianna Fáil's intentions in the north has deepened. A few years ago there was some excitement around the possibility of the party organising in the north and even standing in elections. Then it appeared that they were more interested in some kind of arrangement with the SDLP.
But then in September last year things went into reverse gear when Taoiseach Brian Cowen said Fianna Fáil had indefinitely put off plans to organise in Northern Ireland.
In February 2009 though, the ard fheis called on the party to establish a 'Fianna Fáil forum in every county in Northern Ireland in order to facilitate party members in the North who wish to meet and engage with Fianna Fáil public representatives and members'.
And tomorrow, government Ministers Dermot Ahern and Éamon Ó Cuív are to travel to Downpatrick, Co Down, to initiate a Fianna Fáil 'forum' there.
So forwards, backwards, and now forwards again!
But why the high level of the delegation? Both Dermot Ahern and Éamon Ó Cuív are high profile ministers with, one presumes, heavy demands on their time. The Lisbon referendum is coming up, and given its political importance it is surprising that two popular ministers are taking time out to go to a vague 'forum' with no clear purpose or mandate. Fianna Fáil is grappling with enormous economic problems in the south, and may have to fight an election (that it would probably lose) within a few months – its popularity has been hard hit by a number of factors, not least the economic woes.
So why is their attention being focussed on the forum in Downpatrick?
Downpatrick is, along with Derry, one of the SDLP's strongest bastions. So establishing a forum there without tacit agreement from the SDLP would be considered quite a hostile move. The Belfast Telegraph, however, says that Eddie McGrady "was unaware of the event". If this is true, then Fianna Fáil's motives become very murky indeed.
Could the reasons for the forum be connected with next year's Westminster election? The local MP, the SDLP's aged Eddie McGrady, will be 75 next year. Although he has previously stated that he intends to stand again, the Fianna Fáil interest in his constituency could indicate that they suspect that there will be a new candidate (Margaret Ritchie?) who will need all the help (s)he can get. An active Fianna Fáil 'forum' lending its support to a new SDLP candidate may be enough to ensure his or her election. It may also be enough to encourage a few tactical votes from the centre, or even from unionists.
But why would Fianna Fáil do this outside an arrangement with the SDLP? Why do it at all? If the establishment of the forum is seen as a hostile act by the SDLP in its heartland, relations between the two parties could be soured, and for what?
The political class in the south has learned over many years what the SDLP may be just about to learn – that Fianna Fáil looks after its own interests first and foremost. The party is known for cunning and ruthlessness, and the event in Downpatrick must be seen in that light. There is no obvious reason for in, but that most certainly does not mean that there is no reason for it. This is an issue to watch.