To succeed, the Reform Alliance will have to do more than court media attention
Opinion: Circumstances may not prove sufficiently favourable for the new group to match the political breakthrough made by the PDs
Lucinda Creighton TD with her husband, Senator Paul Bradford, outside Leinster House last summer. Photograph: Alan Betson
If Lucinda Creighton and the Reform Alliance can do as well in attracting public support as they have done so far in generating publicity they could be a force to be reckoned with in Irish politics.
Translating soft headlines into votes at the next general election will not be easy, but getting public attention is the first requirement of any new political movement.
The dominant Irish politician of the 20th century, Éamon de Valera, once remarked that anyone seeking to achieve power in Ireland should “put publicity before all”. On that criterion the Reform Alliance has already done spectacularly well.
They have also demonstrated a shrewd grasp of political tactics. Forming a loose alliance in the Dáil and then registering as a third party for the purposes of political donations has given the impression of a coherent political movement without the hard slog of organisation and policy formation that the establishment of a political party would require.
The big question is whether it is all an elaborate publicity stunt to keep a number of ex-Fine Gael politicians in the public eye to enhance their prospects of re-election next time around or whether they really are planning a new political departure.
The fact that the Reform Alliance appears intent on staying out of the nitty gritty of political organisation in the months ahead and will not be fielding candidates in the local and European elections in early summer may indicate divided views about the next step.
Before the year is out the alliance will have to decide whether it is a flag of convenience or a genuine political force with a coherent policy platform and organisation.
Some of the TDs involved seem tempted to press ahead and launch a political party in the autumn when the May elections are safely out of the way but others seem more attracted to running as Independents in the next election.
The ideal for all of those involved would be to hold the balance of power after that election, whether as a loose grouping or as a political party. Getting into that position will require luck, as well as a lot of hard work.
The public meeting in the RDS planned for later this month will give some clarity about the public appetite for a new political movement. While the meeting is sure to attract a large crowd the important thing will be whether the majority of those attending share any kind of coherent political position.
Disagreement with the Government’s approach to abortion was the issue that led to the rift with Fine Gael but opinion polls indicate that a party campaigning against the current restrictive abortion regime would have a limited appeal.
It is likely that the Reform Alliance will place its focus on economic rather than social issues in an effort to win a slice of its former party’s vote. To do that it will have to focus on policies that appeal to the self-employed segment of the Fine Gael electorate, which may be frustrated with the influence of Labour on the programme for government.
Comparisons have been drawn with the establishment of the Progressive Democrats in December 1985, but there are some glaring differences, both with regard to personality and to politics.
The central motivation for the founding of the PDs was the antipathy of some leading members of Fianna Fáil to Charles Haughey. Some of those involved with the Reform Alliance have almost a similar level of aversion to Enda Kenny, but whatever may be said about the current Taoiseach’s leadership style, he is not remotely comparable to Haughey by any stretch of the imagination.
Another factor is that while Lucinda Creighton proved herself an effective junior minister, and has shown a remarkable ability to generate a great deal of attention for her movement, she doesn’t have the political experience or national standing that Des O’Malley had in 1985.
One of the parallels between the new movement and the PDs is the potential threat to Fine Gael. While most of the prominent PD figures were ex-Fianna Fáil, the party drew most of its support from disillusioned Fine Gael voters. It is no coincidence that the revival in Fine Gael fortunes in recent years coincided with the demise of the PDs.
The Reform Alliance is entirely based on ex-Fine Gael public representatives, so the threat to the senior Government party if it manages to gain traction is obvious.
However, this is where another big difference between now and 1985 could be vital. In the mid-1980s the Fine Gael-Labour government led by Garret FitzGerald was widely perceived as having failed in its efforts to deal with the economic crisis, mainly because the parties were are loggerheads about how to tackle the problem. The air of despondency that gripped the country and the crippling levels of taxation created an opening for a new party that promised to cut taxes as a means of generating economic growth.
The situation today is very different. For a start the two parties in Government are united behind a plan to deal with the economic problem. More importantly Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore have delivered on the promise to exit the EU/IMF bailout and, barring some unexpected external economic shock, the country will continue on the road to recovery.
If the recovery gains momentum over the next two years and Government manages some easing of the burden on middle income earners, the prospects for a party trying to woo Fine Gael voters could be very limited.