It’s a funny thing, but defectors have been much in the news the past week. Not one defector, but three. And not one of them without some kind of twist in the tale. And, wait, till I tell you, defections may be common in the south – one thinks of the late Nollaig de Brún and his multiple party allegiances – but much less so in the north. That’s why Billy Leonard is such an unusual figure.
First up is the news that Fianna Fáil, its support crumbling south of the border, has optimistically been attempting to establish a base in South Down. This has involved a high-powered delegation from HQ, including justice minister Dermot Ahern and former Ceann Comhairle Rory O’Hanlon, as well as uncrowned king of Connacht Éamon Ó Cuív, who talked about how his grandfather, President de Valera, had a long-standing connection to the constituency, having been elected there in the 1920s. One may wish to take this sentimentality at face value, and one may note that Ahern (from Dundalk) and Dr Death O’Hanlon (from Carrickmacross) are border deputies with a natural interest in what happens next door. But it’s hard not to see this stellar line-up as representing a big vote of no confidence in the long-term future of the South Down and Londonderry Party. Consider also that the Soldiers of Fortune already have a cumann in Derry, and add a little piquancy in terms of the near forty-year animus between the SDLP and the Blaneyites. Maybe Durko and Attwood should pause awhile in thought.
Anyway, lending some tone to proceedings was FF’s most prominent local figure, ex-councillor Colonel Harvey Bicker OBE, formerly of the Ulster Unionist Party and the British army. Now, Harvey defected to FF some time ago, and is currently an appointee to President McAleese’s Council of State, but he retains an interest in South Down politics and is now rather ostentatiously in favour of the all-Ireland context. Whether such an eccentric figure is symptomatic of anything is another matter. My view is that there must be something in the water around that neck of the woods, which is also the stomping ground of ex-UUP man Henry Reilly, who currently sits as a UKIP representative on Newry and Mourne council.
Another councillor to make the news has been Belcoo man Domhnall Ó Cobhthaigh, who has left PSF to join the Socialist Party. (More here.) At least we can say that Domhnall hasn’t acted for purposes of electoral advancement, and he has resigned his seat on Fermanagh council, rather honourably reckoning that, as a co-opted rather than elected councillor, he couldn’t possibly claim the seat as his. I wish Domhnall well in his new environment, and obviously this is a feather in the cap for the SP, but it does puzzle me a little.
Yes, on one level, I can see it. Domhnall is a socialist, and wants to be in a party with its socialist identity front and centre, and the SP is certainly that. He feels that Gerry has moved to the right, and I can’t disagree with him there. He admires Joe Higgins, which is certainly understandable. And I can see the mechanics – he’s grown disillusioned, and will have been talking to the SP’s Paul Dale, who’s been a council candidate himself in Enniskillen. And yet… you know, when a councillor goes independent, as some PSF councillors have done recently, it’s one thing, but going over to another party is a definite statement of intent. And what has me scratching my head is that there are more obvious places for a disillusioned socialist republican to go. Of late, éirígí have been pleased with picking up councillors Louise Minihan of Dublin and Barry Monteith of Dungannon; below the elected reps level, I know of some activists over the last wheen of years who have gone to Sinn Féin Eile or to the Communist Party, either of which makes sense.
Having read what Domhnall said in the Impartial Reporter, I’m not much wiser. He is convincing when talking about his disillusionment; his statements on the neoliberal politics of the Assembly are the standard SP boilerplate. What I’m wondering is whether he’s still a republican. The point about the SP is that it’s the most determinedly anti-republican formation on the Irish left, and has spent decades defining itself against “left republicanism”. If Domhnall thinks you can be a republican in the SP, he’s in for a quare gunk. On the other hand, if he’s been convinced by the SP’s hallmark policy of the “socialist federation of Britain and Ireland”, that’s well and good for him, but I don’t see it having much purchase in rural Fermanagh. Well, we shall see, and I look forward to hearing more from Domhnall.
Finally, we have to take a look at Ian Parsley (not Paisley), the fresh-faced young Alliance councillor in North Down who was Alliance’s candidate in the recent Euro-election, but has now defected to the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, via its Tory component. His rationale is that this allows him to plug into UK-wide politics, which is a bit cheeky, since he surely knows that many Alliance people are card-carrying members of the Liberal Democrats. The word is that this fits in nicely with UCUNF’s small headache of finding a candidate in North Down, since the sitting Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, is a stalwart Labour supporter and has been notably sceptical of the whole UCUNF boondoggle. Counting against Ian, however, is his rash declaration that he isn’t actually a unionist. This may be a slight disability if you want to win the endorsement of the Unionist Party.
All I can say about that is that I’m glad I’m not a North Down voter. The prospect of a battle of the young fogies between Ian Parsley and Peter Weir is almost too grim to contemplate.