Renua: The long, painful demise of a political party

State funding keeps group afloat, but future is bleak as Eddie Hobbs and others jump ship

After failing to win seats in the 2016 general election, Renua’s future looks uncertain. What went wrong and where does the party stand now? Here we look at key moments in the party’s brief history.

 

Since the general election, Renua has ceased to function as a political party in any meaningful sense.

In recent weeks, the corpse twitched a few times with the formal departure of its chief standard bearers.

Still bruised, Lucinda Creighton, the party’s leader, engine and inspiration, stood down in early May.

Then, last week, the party’s president and its last household name Eddie Hobbs announced that he was also leaving. There is no backroom team left.

Communications chief and head of strategy John Drennan had left quickly after the election. Former TD Billy Timmins, a well-liked and respected figure who can hardly have imagined his political career would finish like this, followed.

So what now for a party that began with great ambitions?

“A party in search of politics,” commented one former Renua figure. It is, frankly, an optimistic assessment. Publicly, people say polite things. Privately, there is anger, bitterness, recrimination and disillusionment.

“The party in its current form is dead in the water,” says Kilkenny councillor Patrick McKee, one of its remaining five local council representatives. “I’d be extremely pessimistic.”

Each of its TDs lost their seats. None of the party’s candidates were elected.

“No Renua candidate has ever been elected to anything,” says one senior figure, forlornly.

As an electoral competitor, Renua flopped, conspicuously and completely. Well, not completely, perhaps, since it did get more than 2 per cent of the national vote.

The vote was garnered by an entirely deliberate strategy of running as many candidates as possible, but it guarantees approximately €250,000- a-year worth of annual finding for each year the current Dáil lasts. The first instalment arrives in July.

It is not a fortune, but it is enough to staff an office, run some campaigns and hold events. Does this mean the corpse has a pulse? It might. It certainly has a funding stream. The remnants are trying to keep going, and now they might have enough to do so.

Last Monday, its national board met in Dublin. Offaly councillor John Leahy was tasked with speaking to members over the summer to chart a future path. A leadership contest is likely to take place in the autumn, he says.

Leahy, eager and enthusiastic, is still a believer. “There’s no question of the party being wound up,” he says. He is committed to continuing its mission. His website doesn’t mention Renua though. It describes him as “an independent councillor”.

But even if Leahy wants to continue, it is not clear what that mission is. Before the election, Renua staked out hard positions to the right of Fine Gael, promising a flat tax, a “three strikes” law-and-order policy and tough medicine for the public sector. Voters did not buy it.

Hardly distinctive

Though he declined to be interviewed, Eddie Hobbs has said Renua should be “economically conservative and socially liberal” and that it should rebrand as the Liberal Democrat Party. This seems likely to happen.

Translated, this means that Hobbs believes that Renua must shed its association with the anti-abortion cause, though the issue seems to run as an undercurrent in every discussion party members have.

Renua was born from Fine Gael’s agonies about abortion. Before the 2011 general election, Fine Gael candidates, authorised by headquarters, promised anti-abortion campaigners that it would not legislate for abortion.

However, in the face of Labour’s insistence, Fine Gael introduced legislation to give effect to the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in the X case, recognising a right to abortion where the mother is suicidal as a result of the pregnancy.

Technically, Fine Gael did not create new rights – it was simply clarifying and codifying the existing legal situation, but anti-abortion campaigners did not see it that way. Neither did several of its TDs. Creighton, Timmins, Terence Flanagan and several others were expelled.

From the start, Creighton and others tried to escape being defined by abortion. Party members would have a free vote on moral issues. Anti-abortion and pro-choice views could be happily accommodated.

Insiders, however, believe the anti-abortion label stuck.

“It was a massive problem for us in Dublin. It caused huge damage to Lucinda,” says one strategist, while another remembers canvassing with Creighton in her Dublin Bay South constituency – one of the most liberal in the country. “We had 18 people out. Seventeen were pro-life people.”

Broadly, anti-abortion voters are not rare in Ireland, but there are not so many of them who vote on abortion above everything else.

In a way, Renua had the worst of all worlds. In Dublin, canvassers had the abortion issue thrown at them on the doors.

Outside Dublin, where there are more anti-abortion votes, the party’s attempts to distance itself from the abortion issue rankled with conservative voters.

Targeted campaign

Fianna Fáil

Most voters pay little attention to politics day to day. But Creighton’s expulsion from Fine Gael because of her opposition to abortion did register with them. Three years later, they still remembered it – despite her efforts to talk about anything but abortion.

“The mark of Cain was upon us,” says one former activist. “The public had sussed it . . . the freedom-of-conscience thing was a technical device. The Irish public don’t believe that stuff. They want to know where you stand.”

Creighton also faced a targeted Fine Gael campaign. A succession of negative stories in the Sunday Independent and Irish Independent at the height of the campaign were seen by her as part of that agenda – a charge rejected.

For her part, Creighton was prickly and unco-operative with the media, even in the eyes of her own staff. She was highly critical of businessman Denis O’Brien, the largest shareholder in the Independent group. Brave, her own side felt, but not terribly wise.

The negative campaign probably cost her the seat. “I did a private poll with 2½ weeks to go,” says Ross McCarthy, a former adviser to the party.

“It showed Lucinda getting the second seat.”

But by polling day, the tide had turned.

So there was a campaign against her? “Tough. It’s politics. It’s a tough business. You have to deal with it,” says another former staffer.

Another person summed it up differently. “Ultimately the country turned left. That’s what did it for us.”

Creighton is admired by former colleagues for her bravery, integrity and dedication, but criticised for making lots of mistakes. Some of those who worked most closely with her said that the job sometimes just overwhelmed her.

Today, Creighton says she is moving on. Though still a member of Renua, her departure deprives it of its only front-rank national politician. John Leahy is capable and popular and an effective councillor. But outside Co Offaly, nobody knows who he is.

“There’s no question we’re in turmoil,” says Leahy. “It’s a painful process. But we’re trying to stick it out and get to the end of it.”

But to what end? State funding, rather than political philosophy, is currently keeping Renua together.

“There’s no question of the party being wound up,” says Leahy, though others believe it would have already succumbed without the State cash.

Meanwhile, the long-running, bitter postmortems go on. They blame Creighton. They blame Hobbs. They blame the flat tax and the pro-lifers. They blame themselves. “We’re angry with ourselves and with others for the way we were perceived,” says Leahy

“The very essence of invention is being told it is impossible,” Creighton was fond of telling the small band who created Renua in the days when for a brief time all looked possible. Almost all of them have now departed.