New political alliance faces challenge agreeing on policy

Electoral reform, abortion, entrepreneurship and influence of the EU among topics raised at inaugural meeting

Lucinda Creighton at the Reform Alliance conference at the RDS over the weekend. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Lucinda Creighton at the Reform Alliance conference at the RDS over the weekend. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The Reform Alliance managed to attract a sizeable crowd to its first public meeting at the RDS over the weekend but the future of the movement remains a puzzle.

More than 1,000 people attended the well-organised event but after it had finished the TDs who brought the crowd together were unable to say whether or not they would proceed to launch a new political party.

The failure to capitalise on the momentum that brought so many people together on a cold weekend in January could be damaging in the long term if they establish a party.

Some inkling of the difficulties that will inevitably arise if they try to get a party off the ground may have impressed itself on former Fine Gael TDs and senators as they listened to the response of those who gathered at the RDS to the various platform speakers and the subsequent contributions from the audience.

What united the gathering was a rejection of all the current political parties and the “establishment” in general. There was also strong support for the stand that had led to the TDs and Senators leaving Fine Gael. However, apart from a broad desire for “reform” and a feeling that the self-employed deserved a better deal it was not clear what specific policy platform the meeting would have been prepared to endorse.


Single-seat constituencies
In the first session, on political reform, there was support for broadcaster Olivia O’Leary’s contention that clientelist politics was one of the root causes of the country’s problems. She advocated the replacement of the current multiseat system of proportional representation with a system based on single-seat constituencies. English political philosopher Phillip Blond, a former advisor to David Cameron, proposed a reformed Seanad, with additional powers, that would exclude all party politicians and be made up of civic spirited individuals.

Political scientist Jane Suiter focused on the need for changes in the political culture and specifically the need for openness and transparency through an expanded freedom of information regime.

The suggestions of the speakers were warmly received but when the microphone went to the floor much of the comment strayed away from specifics and involved a condemnation of politicians in general. One speaker suggested that at the next election they should campaign for the defeat of all 166 current TDs and have a Dáil entirely composed of new faces not attached to any political party.

The biggest round of applause went to a speaker who expressed surprise that both Ms O’Leary and Ms Suiter had prefaced their remarks by saying that they disagreed with Lucinda Creighton’s position on the recent abortion legislation. He pointed out that what had brought the Reform Alliance into being was the fact that five TDs and Senators had been expelled from Fine Gael for sticking by a commitment made before the last election.

The applause that greeted his remarks indicated that a good proportion of the audience supported the stance taken by Ms Creighton and her colleagues on the abortion issue even though it was not a theme of any of the three debate sessions on Saturday.


Desire for political reform
Taking the day as a whole it appeared there were three issues that mainly concerned people. One was abortion, even if it was not openly debated. A second was a general desire for political reform involving changes in the electoral system. The third was a feeling that the State’s institutions were biased against the self-employed and discouraged entrepreneurship.

Whether those themes can be fleshed out into a coherent political programme that could attract a significant segment of the electorate is something the organisers will have to decide. Broadcaster Tom McGurk, who chaired the session on political reform, got a good response when he strongly criticised the European Union and its institutions.

A sizeable proportion of the voters who reject the mainstream parties would probably endorse that position. The problem for the Reform Alliance is that its leading light, Ms Creighton, is a strong supporter of the EU and her natural inclination would not involve going after the Eurosceptic vote.

It does not appear that the Reform Alliance will constitute itself as a political party in advance of the European and local elections. The mainstream parties’ performance in those contests should help them make up their minds about whether there is an opening for a new party.

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