INTERNAL Irish politics – north and south – has never much interested the myopic British media. So you’d be forgiven, this side of the Irish Sea, for missing the current ferment in Ireland’s politics triggered by Brexit.

The imminent prospect of an unwanted, alien-imposed economic border slicing through the island is transforming the traditional Irish political parties. While in Scotland there is a creeping tendency to “wait and see” what Brexit will bring before taking any irrevocable steps towards independence, in Ireland the politics of change is exploding the status quo.

On Saturday, we saw the northern Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) vote overwhelmingly in favour of a strategic partnership with the southern, opposition Fianna Fáil – opening the prospect of a full merger. Meanwhile, last month, Peadar Tóibín, a prominent member of the Irish Parliament and an ex-Sinn Fein member, launched a new, all-Ireland party christened Aontú, meaning “unity”, which has already set up branches on both sides of the border.

Three interlocking issues are driving political change on the island of Ireland. First, whatever form Brexit eventually takes, it will disrupt the Irish economy wholesale. That is forcing all political parties to re-examine their economic strategies – and forcing voters to reconsider what they want from an economy mired in financial corruption and austerity.

Secondly, existing party structures and allegiances on the island are increasingly out of step with the new, liberal Irish society that has emerged in the last few decades. Third, the re-imposition of a hard border could trigger demands for a new poll in the north on Irish reunification. Result: party structures and allegiances are in flux.

Consider the coming together of the SDLP and Fianna Fáil.

The former was founded in 1970, at the height of the reborn Troubles, as an anti-violence but pro-nationalist party of the left.

For decades, under tough, intelligent leaders such as John Hume, it dominated nationalist politics in the north. Disdaining Sinn Fein’s traditional abstentionism, SDLP MPs not only took their seats at Westminster but also took the UK Labour Party whip.

To this day, UK Labour do not field its own candidates in the north – meaning that for half a century, Labour has supported an SDLP that wants (eventually) to quit the UK while damning the SNP for wanting the same!

Recently, though, the SDLP have been in sharp decline as northern politics has polarised between Sinn Fein and the DUP. The conservative SDLP leadership have been reticent to support equal marriage or abortion, alienating younger voters.

At the 2017 snap General Election, the SDLP lost their three Westminster MPs. Leader Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie and Alasdair McDonnell were toppled, respectively in Foyle, South Down and Belfast South (to the DUP).

For the SDLP, a “trial marriage” with centre-right Fianna Fáil is very risky. Founded by Eamon de Valera in 1926, Fianna Fáil has been the dominant republican party in the south for most of independent Ireland’s history. But its permanent hold over power facilitated rampant financial corruption, especially during the Celtic Tiger period of growth in the 1980s and 1990s, under the outrageous Taoiseach Charles Haughey.

As a result, Finnan Fáil got the blame (justly) both for causing Ireland’s endemic banking corruption and for introducing the austerity that followed the bank crash. It was duly booted out of power in 2011, in the worst defeat of any government in Irish history.

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So why does a link between the ostensibly left-wing SDLP and right-wing Fianna Fáil make any sense?

It gives Fianna Fáil a progressive makeover that will allow it to eat into left-wing votes, and it gives the SDLP an historical link with mainstream republicanism to counter Sinn Fein. Whether this transparent opportunism gets past Irish voters remains to be tested.

It will be in May, in local elections in the north.

The National: Irish premier Leo VaradkarIrish premier Leo Varadkar

Bizarrely, in the south, Fianna Fáil are now propping up the minority Fine Gael government of Leo Varadkar. At the 2016 Irish general election, the coalition government between Fine Gael and Irish Labour was defeated due to the unpopularity of its austerity policies. Indeed, Labour were virtually wiped out. Fine Gael is fiscally conservative but remains the largest party in the Dáil thanks in part to its social liberalism – for example, it drove the repeal of the anti-abortion laws.

Fianna Fáil, under its new leader Micheál Martin, is happy to prop up Fine Gael as a way of recovering influence. Varadkar is in office only because he has temporary and conditional Fianna Fáil support, so Theresa May is deluded if she thinks she can get the backstop removed or fudged.

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Meanwhile, there is Peadar Tóibín’s new, all-Ireland Aontú. Tóibín resigned from Sinn Fein last year over the party’s support for liberalising abortion laws in the south. He has picked up support not just from conservative elements in Sinn Fein but also from Fine Gael members unhappy with Leo Varadkar’s liberalism.

Yet Aontú is more than a reactionary project. Tóibín has an eye on the fact that the socially conservative north voted Remain. Could he create an all-Ireland alliance of Protestant and Catholic conservatives? Unlikely, but with the DUP transparently using Brexit to hide from its serial financial corruption, he has a point.

According to Tóibín: “We seek the unity of Irish people north and south and to build an Ireland for everyone – Protestant, Catholic and dissenter in the tradition of the United Irishmen of 1798.”

He told the Irish Times: “We’ll seek to build an all-Ireland economy to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit, economic justice for all and to protect the right to life.”

That’s a populist brew that could prove effective.

The latest Irish opinion polls put Varadkar’s ruling Fine Gael running at circa 31%, Fianna Fáil scoring in the mid-20s or slightly higher, and Sinn Fein in the high teens. However, there does seem to have been some wind behind Fianna Fáil since the autumn and the intensification of the UK Brexit crisis – with Sinn Fein losing ground.

English nationalist Brexiteers at Westminster take comfort in the erroneous notion that – because the UK is Ireland’s biggest single economic customer – the Irish will do a deal eventually, and on England’s terms.

In fact, the latest polls suggest Irish public opinion is going in exactly the opposite direction. A recent Sky TV poll found that a majority of Irish people would rather cut ties completely with the UK, than with the EU – by 81% in favour. Conclusion: after a decade of massive austerity, and now Brexit, Irish voters are open to radical change.

What is the likelihood of an Irish border poll? Mary Lou McDonald, who took over from Gerry Adams last year as Sinn Fein leader, has already suggested that a hard border post-Brexit would be grounds for a fresh vote on Irish unity. She told Andrew Marr: “Put simply, if the border in Ireland cannot be mitigated, cannot be managed in the short term, well then you put the question democratically in the hands of the people and allow them to remove the border”.

One could say the same for Scotland. Why not two border polls, in Northern Ireland and in Scotland – and preferably on the same day?