By Eamon Sweeney

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has said that the party’s membership will have the final say on a political merger between the SDLP and Fianna Fail.

Mr Eastwood was responding to mounting speculation that the parties are on the cusp of announcing a long mooted political partnership.

When asked yesterday if an announcement of a merger was imminent, the SDLP leader gave the Derry News a very brief response that said: “We are in talks that will be finalised soon. The membership will have the final say.”

In recent days press reports have suggested that significant developments regarding the merger could be announced as early as this month.

Talks between Colum Eastwood and Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin have been taking place in private for some time. But, it appears that the membership of both parties have not as yet been privy to their contents.

Speculative options after a merger have ranged from a complete takeover of the SDLP by Fianna Fail to SDLP candidates not yet running on a joint platform but as SDLP candidates with Fianna Fail endorsement.

Indications of a merger announcement coming sooner rather than later were perhaps contained in a New Year’s message released by the SDLP leader.

The final paragraph of the message stated: “With all the political change we are experiencing it is important to point out that we too are ready to embrace change. Since our foundation the SDLP has led much of the political advancement that Ireland has experienced. We want to lead that change again. We are determined to ensure that we are in a position to do so.”

However, on New Year’s Eve the SDLPs youth wing again reinforced their opposition to any form of merger. In a social media post they said: “We would like to reaffirm our position as carried at our Policy Conference in August 2018: SDLP Youth is against any merger, working arrangement, etc with any party whose values and principles are contradictory to the values and principles of the SDLP.”

And, senior SDLP representative Claire Hanna has been reported as saying that party members are only learning of the potential merger via the media.

Ms Hanna said there has been "no serious attempt" to engage members and added that she fears there may be only a 'take it or leave it' option on the table when details of a deal finally emerge.

The electoral fortunes of the SDLP have steadily declined since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in the last two decades.

In the first Assembly elections after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the SDLP took 24 seats in comparison to Sinn Fein’s 18. In the last Assembly elections Sinn Fein returned 27 MLAs whilst the SDLP returned 12.

In 1998, the SDLP had three MPs at Westminster whilst Sinn Fein had two. Twenty years later, Sinn Fein has seven MPs and the SDLP have none.

With local authority elections scheduled for Northern Ireland this May, it is highly possible that details of the long speculated political merger may have to be released soon.

The Fianna Fail Ard Fheis will take place in Dublin towards the end of February and it has been suggested that Colum Eastwood and SDLP Deputy Leader Nicola Mallon may make a significant appearance there.

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