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.
All seven are in the ranks of the dispossessed, having been expelled from Fine Gael following their opposition to the Coalition’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. (There is little mention of abortion in the Reform Alliance literature: it doesn’t want to be identified on a single issue.)
Enda Kenny’s lopsided grin and light style belie a very long memory and a habit of not fully forgiving those with whom he quarrels. There’s no indication of a fast-track return to Fine Gael for Brian Walsh, the only parliamentarian to vote against the abortion legislation and not join the alliance. For an able and ambitious politician such as Creighton, waiting for Kenny to step down might seem a lifetime away.
Is there space for such a party? The obvious gap in Irish politics seems to be for a left-of-centre entity. None is emerging. The Progressive Democrats found a right-of-centre niche in the 1980s, and like the Reform Alliance it had its beginnings in expulsion. Over time it became apparent that such niches are never static. Being part of a coalition over two terms diluted the PDs’ message. In the end the choice Michael McDowell offered the party, to be radical or redundant, answered itself.
There are some comparisons between today’s meeting and those adrenalised PD meetings in early 1986, when Bobby Molloy and Pearse Wyse jumped ship from Fianna Fáil to join Des O’Malley, Mary Harney and McDowell at a series of packed-out rallies around the country.
But the similarities are slight. The base of the PDs was broader and its political personalities were stronger. Its meetings were the outcome of months of planning, and the party was more or less fully formed by then. Alliances, by their nature, are loose and unwieldy, and lack the cohesion and discipline of a party. The experience of the United Left Alliance shows that.
And there are practical impediments to becoming a party. In 1986 the PDs were able to secure substantial political donations. Not any more. As the former senator Joe O’Toole pointed out in an opinion piece for The Irish Times, new rules make it almost impossible to form a new party. There is a €2,500 limit on yearly donations.
And when it comes to State funding, there’s the anomalous situation whereby you can’t join the club if you are not already a member. The big parties get millions of euro in State funding each year. A new party will get nothing. Any party with less than 2 per cent of the national vote won’t get State funding. As the Greens have painfully found out, the lack of such funding is devastating for a party.
So where will the alliance go? If nothing else, today’s rally will broaden its base. It’s just hard to imagine it stopping there.