Reform Alliance likely to evolve cautiously towards becoming a political party
Opinion: A successful launch could see the group back in power as part of a coalition
What does the future hold? Deputy Lucinda Creighton and her husband, Senator Paul Bradford. Photograph: Alan Betson
Former minister of state Lucinda Creighton and most of her Reform Alliance allies lost the Fine Gael whip during the summer when they voted against abortion legislation. They then came together under the same banner, quickly moving beyond the single issue that united them in the first place. Although they are expelled from the parliamentary party, they remain (just about) within the wider FG family. Not for long, it would appear.
If Fine Gael’s view is that a sustained period of good behaviour and grace might provide a route back for the dissidents, they don’t seem remotely interested. Instead of staying quiet as if in purdah, they chose to publicly back the campaign to save the Seanad. In the scheme of things, this looked more like a declaration of intent than a simple act of defiance against Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
After all, Galway TD Brian Walsh walked out of the alliance early on, claiming it was “anti-Enda” and seemed like a new party in the making. No such qualms emerged to deter TDs Billy Timmins, Terence Flanagan, Peter Mathews and Denis Naughten, who lost the whip in 2011 over cuts at Roscommon hospital. The same goes for Senators Paul Bradford, who is Creighton’s husband, and Fidelma Healy-Eames.
Creighton is the star of the pack and has the gumption and ambition to set off down the party path, but the alliance would still need to bring in heavyweight talent to gain real momentum and cast off the image of an FG rump. The ability to draw on sharp personnel is crucial, as is a credible organisation and policy platform. What is more, Mathews and Healy-Eames proved politically troublesome for FG.
So where is it all going? The alliance proposition would be centre-right in economic terms, with an emphasis on State efficiency, political reform and rectitude in the public finances. For example, Creighton has spoken of the need to stick with the defunct €3.1 billion retrenchment target for next week’s budget. The alliance would campaign against public service waste and red tape and be pro-business and pro-investment.
While its members’ stance on abortion would offer clear attractions to social conservatives, there would be a free vote on issues of conscience. The basic aim would be to strike for a wider base than the conservative cohort and, importantly, to stay within the political mainstream.
Crucial too would be the notion of appealing to the growing number of Independent voters who have turned away from traditional parties.
One key idea is to bring in Independent TDs in the mould of Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly, who are not exactly in the conservative camp. For people like them, the allure of a party structure would be to provide an opportunity for greater influence and effectiveness. From the alliance’s perspective, the recruitment of well-known names not closely identified with its members’ objection to abortion would help widen its appeal.
The alliance also sees clear potential to bring in other disaffected Fine Gaelers, but it would not want to limit the franchise to the Blueshirt gene pool. The truth is that credible like-minded departees from any other party would be welcome.
There may not at this point be unanimity among alliance members as to the merits of taking the party route, though a source within says the group is proceeding in that direction. But not just yet. Suggestions they might run candidates in the European and local elections next May are dismissed as overdone.
With its attention trained on a bid to seize the balance of power in the 2016 general election, the alliance is wary of peaking too soon. Matters might be formalised late in 2014 with a view to full-blown activation in 2015, but an earlier move seems unlikely. Still, without party status the alliance can’t raise funds.
The raw political calculation is this: Fine Gael would lose seats in 2016 but Labour would lose more, leaving the parties short of a Dáil majority. A disgraced Fianna Fáil would not have recovered so the lack of numbers would leave it out of contention, this being more important than Civil War enmity. Sinn Féin’s seats would most likely be up, but its anti-establishment stridency and anti-austerity economics would not make it an obvious bedfellow for Fine Gael. That is to say nothing of SF’s historic paramilitary links.
Enter the newly-minted Reform Alliance, supposedly flush with seats after a zealous election play for reformist politics, sensible economics and nothing too wild or liberal on the social front. Who better to step up for important national duty than the aspirant new party promising of a new kind of politics in an old-style coalition?
Price of power
There would be a price to be extracted for participation – and that would be only the start.
This picture is necessarily unvarnished, speculative and beholden to events. Difficult is not the word.
But we’ve seen something like this before in Des O’Malley’s expulsion from Fianna Fáil and the deal to bring the Progressive Democrats into power with Charlie Haughey. Indeed, the 1980s variant of the PDs is seen by some close to the alliance as something of a precedent. The Tiger-era version – with Michael McDowell and Tom Parlon - is not.
If the PDs were at the very epicentre of power for years, the ultimate lesson learned was that life for a small upstart party is never easy.