Potential for new political movement led by comedian is no laughing matter

Sat, Mar 2, 2013, 00:00

Step forward, Mrs Brown, your time has come. Your country needs you. Beppe Grillo in Italy has shown the way. Ireland requires a comedian to channel its mood for political protest, and who better than Brendan O’Carroll? Not only is he our most commercially successful comic genius, sure wasn’t his mother a TD in her time?

Dara Ó Briain could also be a contender. He himself is of the 40-something negative equity age bracket. He’s extremely articulate – a former Irish Times debating champion, no less – and he holds a degree in theoretical physics to boot. He has lived abroad in recent years but so have much of Ireland’s younger generations.

There is also a plethora of possibilities among those Irish comedians based at home. Des Bishop has already cut a dash with television campaigns for various causes, including preserving our national language and, more recently, tackling our alcohol problem. Mario Rosenstock would come with much experience at playing the role of a politician. If you’re looking for someone with the social media savvy of Grillo, then Abie Philbin Bowman fits the bill. He’s also a journalist, and being the son of a venerable broadcaster could also help his standing.

When I floated on Twitter during the week the question of whether and which Irish comedian could lead a new party to 25 per cent in a general election, I was met with the above examples. I was also met with many predictable responses such as the view that our political parties are already led by comedians.

It is worth reflecting, however, on events in Italy in the context of whether there is an opening for a new political grouping in the Irish party system.

One of the great unknowns of the 2011 Irish general election is what would have happened if Fintan O’Toole and Eamon Dunphy had held their nerve. In late 2010 they had been privately working with others, including then senator Shane Ross and the celebrity economist David McWilliams, to launch Democracy Now.

‘Non-ideological’ alliance

This was to be a loose “non-ideological” alliance of new candidates who would subscribe to five core principles but otherwise be free to vote as they wished. The movement, it was said, was designed to reform Irish politics but in January 2011 O’Toole and Dunphy announced they were abandoning their plans because the date of the election had been brought forward a month.

My guess is that, had they run, the O’Toole-Dunphy group could have won as many as 20 seats. It would have made the 2011 election all the more interesting and it would have been fascinating to watch them trying to co-ordinate the various strong personalities involved during the life of this Dáil. It’s likely to have been at least as entertaining as the travails of the technical group of Independents.

Such was the volatility of Irish politics in 2011 and the space created by the implosion of Fianna Fáil that any emerging group fronted by high-profile personalities with even a modicum of credibility would have become the focal point for public anger at politicians in general and public hunger for real political reform.

There is much support for this contention in the result of the election. The rapid rise of Mick Wallace in Wexford, where he topped the poll less than three weeks after declaring his candidacy on national television, illustrates the extent to which the electorate was looking for something, anything, to challenge the political status quo.

The phenomenal success of Ross, who got almost one and a half quotas in the ever-volatile Dublin South, showed the potential that was there for Democracy Now. The surge for Luke Ming Flanagan in Roscommon and the election of colourful Independents in Kerry and Tipperary illustrated that the demand for new politics in whatever form was strong throughout the country.

International news story

Had they pulled off such an electoral success, Dunphy and O’Toole would probably have become the international news story of Ireland’s 2011 election. Foreign reporters would probably have written colourful accounts of how a theatre critic and a soccer pundit had turned Irish politics on its head. Neither description of course does justice to their wider credibility as public commentators but that would not have mattered to those looking at Irish politics from without.

Looking at the most recent Italian election from without one wonders whether the foreign press is also guilty of parody in dismissing Grillo and his Five Star Movement as merely a protest group led by a comedian. When viewed more closely it seems their success owes as much to astute marketing and their vague platform as it does to Grillo’s celebrity. In the next few weeks, as an interim government is put in place in Italy, we may see that the Five Star deputies are more moderate and pragmatic than their leader’s rhetoric had suggested.

When looking at the Irish case it is worth reiterating that many of the underlying social and economic circumstances that gave rise to electoral volatility in 2011 persist – some, such as long-term unemployment and private property debt, have worsened.

With the Government becoming increasingly unpopular in the polls, and with a growing sense that there has been no real change or substantial political reform, there is a real possibility of further dramatic political shifts. Sinn Féin and a mildly resurgent Fianna Fáil may occupy some of the available space but only some of it.

What the Italian experience also shows is that with the advent of social media and other internet-based political marketing tools, new political entities can succeed without significant party organisation in the traditional sense and without much financial support.

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