When is a party not a party?
The Reform Alliance conference today is not a monster meeting, nor is it a party launch. So what do the seven Oireachtas members hope to achieve?
Plinth politics: Reform Alliance members (from left) Billy Timmins, Paul Bradford, Peter Mathews, Fidelma Healy Eames, Lucinda Creighton and Terence Flanagan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Whatever you do, don’t call it a party. Today, the Reform Alliance, the group comprised of seven members of the Oireachtas – five TDs and two Senators – will raise its profile in Irish politics. They expect hundreds of people to attend a one-day “reform conference” at the RDS, in Dublin.
But it’s not a party, and don’t you forget it. In a press release on Thursday the alliance said: “Despite some of the media depictions drawing parallels to Daniel O’Connell’s famous ‘Monster Meetings’, or that this is an Ard Fheis-style meeting precipitating the launch of a new party, neither of these representations are accurate.”
The group said this week that more than 500 people had registered for the event, and that it had received 400 suggestions for political reform. Among those at the RDS today will be political anoraks, disaffected Fine Gaelers and some curious rubberneckers. Despite alliance members’ protestations, there will be a cohort that would support any effort to form a new right-of-centre party in Ireland.
The five TDs (Lucinda Creighton, Denis Naughten, Peter Mathews, Terence Flanagan and Billy Timmins) and two Senators (Fidelma Healy Eames and Paul Bradford) have footed the bill for today’s gig, but none is on the list of speakers for the three topics under discussion: the economy; and health and political reform.
The line-up includes well-known public figures such as Tom McGurk, Olivia O’Leary and David McWilliams, as well as Dr Ed Walsh, Jimmy Sheahan of Blackrock Clinic and Philip Blond, an adviser to the British prime minster, David Cameron.
So what is the meeting for? To quote the press release: “The entire purpose of this conference is to generate ideas that will enhance Irish society and economic recovery. As members of the Oireachtas we will . . . commence a programme of promoting the Reform proposals through parliamentary questions, private members’ bills and future policy papers.”
So is the Reform Alliance merely an incubator for new ideas? Evidence points elsewhere. Creighton, its leading figure, announced its formation on The Late Late Show in early September, and the alliance’s actions since then suggest it is, to borrow a term from the technology world, a beta version of a new political party.
It was quick to give itself a strong identity, backed by a snazzy logo of a harp embellished with an EU star. Its website is polished, and it has an active Twitter account. It scored an early victory when the Ceann Comhairle, Seán Barrett, gave the group certain speaking rights in the Dáil.
It has registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission as a third party, which some commentators interpreted as a prelude to it becoming a party. But Creighton and her colleagues say it was simply a means of allowing it to accept donations and raise funds.
You can’t disbelieve the group members when they say there is no plan to form a party at present. You might wonder whether some members of the alliance – Naughten, Flanagan and Mathews in particular – have any desire to found a party at any stage. And it is true that beta versions don’t always get a full release. Still, it seems the only logical next step.