Renua: the making of a political party
In less than a year, more than 100 professionals have built a political organisation
It was late one evening towards the end of 2014, and the Ten Thousand World Buffet, on O’Connell Street in Dublin, bustled with locals and tourists, many of them in for a karaoke night. Nobody in the restaurant paid much attention to the procession of people who came through the front door and made their way to an upstairs room as amateur crooners strained for the high notes.
More than a dozen men and women hurried through, most dressed in suits. A few were politicians. The instantly recognisable one was Lucinda Creighton, the former minister of state, who left Fine Gael in 2013, after losing the party whip.
The people who had gathered in this private room were the management team of a new political party, or NP as they called the as-yet-nameless organisation. “That was a bit surreal,” Creighton says with a laugh, “walking through a Chinese restaurant to a meeting of the management team.”
Hush-hush meetings such as this one may have been the strangest staging posts in a year-long journey that has culminated in the launch of a political party, almost 30 years after that of the Progressive Democrats.
Comparisons may be odious, but they will be made between Renua Ireland, as the new party is now called, and the PDs, whose core was a group of disaffected politicians who had split from a major party. The PDs’ ideology could be roughly summed up as centre-right, big on individual entrepreneurship and individual freedoms. The Progressive Democrats were also strong on political reform, promising to break the mould.
A lot has changed in three decades. The PDs are extinct. The hegemony and standing of the traditional parties have eroded. There have been big practical changes, too. New rules on funding and donations have made it almost impossible for a new party to be formed. Before Creighton’s organisation registered as a party, on Friday, March 13th, it could not open a bank account, seek donations or raise money.
These were huge impediments that meant everything had to be done voluntarily. Anybody booking a room had to pay for it out of their own pocket. Hence the choice of unusual venues such as the Ten Thousand World Buffet.
“Everybody I got on board, I told them, ‘There is not a penny in this for you, lads,’ ” says Noel Toolan, the marketing consultant who worked on the party’s branding, image and name. “It was all volunteer stuff. But they all came in and did it. It was extraordinary.”
If Renua Ireland flops electorally it won’t be for lack of preparation, strategy or attention to detail. In less than a year more than 100 volunteers have, out of nothing, built a formidable political organisation with a complexity and sophistication not seen before in Ireland.
It has involved detailed policy and strategy programmes, data analytics, logistics and organisation, and a comprehensive marketing plan. There has been a huge emphasis on the branding of the new party, including its name. The launch was well organised and slick.
The back-room team has a flavour of the kind of operation assembled by a US presidential candidate, complete with James Carville or David Axelrod types. The difference is that they had barely two pennies to rub together. They were also operating in an atmosphere of considerable hostility towards political parties of all hues.
Creighton quotes a maxim that became a mantra for them: “The very essence of invention is being told it is impossible.” She also recalls her experience in 2004, when she was an add-on local-election candidate who was not expected to win. “I got elected because I was highly organised. That is my modus operandi: I set a goal and then I do it. I do not really believe in the naysayers or those who do not think it can be done.”
In early 2014 it was obvious that the Reform Alliance, made up of Fine Gael TDs who had lost the party whip and coalesced as a political grouping the previous year, was not really going anywhere.
Noel Toolan, who has worked with Iona Technologies and Tourism Ireland, met Creighton when she was his local TD and had dealt with an issue he had raised. They had kept in contact. When she resigned he tweeted her that he didn’t agree with certain parts of her politics but admired her stance.
During the Reform Alliance days Toolan went in a few times to meet the TDs and Senators. Toolan, an upbeat man, wasn’t enthused about what he saw. “We kicked around various things. They really needed to get clarity of message. I asked them, ‘Are you a party or not a party? You have been independent for a while. Does it work, lads?’ You could see they were coming to a point. The decision was made by Lucinda that they needed to go the whole way.”
Separately, in February 2013, Creighton was contacted by Liam McCabe, who had been David Norris’s campaign manager before the presidential election of 2011 (and is also a leading figure in Irish mountain rescue and a member of the reserve defence force). He said he would be interested in helping her to form a party. “His motivation was his objection to the difficulties in setting up a political party. He found that to be contrary to his principles.”
Creighton was heavily pregnant at the time – Gwendolyn, her daughter, was born on March 26th, 2014 – so they regrouped over the summer, and McCabe pulled together the first meeting of the core team in June. People who have worked with him say that he has been meticulous in his planning, with every detail, eventuality and piece of the jigsaw accounted for. He arranged the meetings and timetables and configured the teams. In meetings around the country he also stopwatched speakers, to prevent rambling contributions.
Creighton was also reaching out to other people. She met Eddie Hobbs, the well-known financial adviser and broadcaster, at a dinner party. He told her that if she was starting something he would get involved – and “not be shy about it”.
Hobbs divides opinion, but he brought a business background and chutzpah. “I am at the front door of the party, inviting new blood in with one hand. In the other I have a baseball bat for the old stock who want to come in . . . to keep their bum warm in the seat.”
There was plenty of new blood. A key person was Ross McCarthy, formerly of PricewaterhouseCoopers, who has expertise in change management. A smart conceptual thinker and a contemporary of Creighton’s, he had been a colleague in Fine Gael but was no longer politically aligned.
As policy director he had a complex brief. His first task was to devise guiding principles and a vision, something that he found lacking in many established parties. He cited Fine Gael and Labour and said the values they presented seemed to lack conviction. “They are there because they are there. They don’t appear to me as something that jumps on the page. The UK Greens, in contrast, the values they present are exemplary. The UMP” – Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party, in France – “is as good as you can get in terms of defining your values.”
In parallel McCarthy began devising a policy-development structure. Out of that emerged what Renua Ireland says are its guiding-principle descriptions: transformative, compassionate, economically responsible, genuinely reforming, and entrepreneurial.
Toolan uses the term “inventive socialism”, saying that Renua is a party in which the left and right can coexist. “It means being compassionate and citizen-centred at home while highly competitive and capitalist abroad.”
But those expecting to see fully fleshed-out policies will have to wait for six months or a year. The party has published 16 policies but says that it’s a dynamic process. “We are not going to make a policy on the back of the envelope,” McCarthy says. “We are not setting out to get salacious headlines. Far too often we have settled for a position where the short road is taken when we have known only the long road can do.”
Others came on board. The barrister Lisa Chambers, who is the daughter of a former Fianna Fáil senator, Frank Chambers (and a cousin of the Co Mayo councillor who is also called Lisa Chambers), had drawn up the constitution. Another lawyer, James Geoghegan, has also played a prominent role.
Samantha Long, a former Fine Gael member, has done a lot of the public-relations work.
Jason Roe, a data analyst, was approached last October. He had no background in politics but is well known in the start-up and technology sector. He says he loved the energy and excitement in the project; he liked, too, that the majority were nonpolitical.
And NP, as it was then, was exploring elaborate social-media and video strategies that were untried in Irish politics. Soon he too was hooked, putting in full weeks of unpaid work outside his own full-time job. “That’s the great thing about something new. You can take the best bit of everything,” he says.
The Reboot Ireland “prelaunch”, in January, was Creighton’s idea, a way of tackling “disconnect and disillusionment with politics”, she says. “We wanted to say to people, ‘You might not necessarily think of yourself as a politician, but do you have something to offer, be it a business or people skill?’ ”
The prelaunch faced some ridicule, but the response was good. About 3,500 people registered, and 700 of them expressed interest in being candidates. Roe created the website. He also analysed the feedback, to identify where the responses were best and which were the most promising constituencies and candidates. It led to a nationwide tour by the key team members, to set out the vision and outline the work in progress.
Things were moving quickly. More heavyweight volunteers came on board. One was David Gunning, the former chief executive of Coillte, who project-managed and facilitated policy issues with McCarthy.
Another key member of the team was Diane Tangney, a strategic planner who has worked with Ogilvy and Cawley Nea.
Jonathan Irwin, founder and chief executive of the Jack & Jill Foundation, is also involved, and the childcare expert Shane Dunphy has devised the party’s childcare policy.
The last pieces of the jigsaw were the name, the branding and the launch. It was here that Toolan came into his own. He says that when he started looking at the branding and positioning of other parties, many were tribal and “satellited” around the centre.
“What was going to make us different was in terms of positioning: there was the idea of being future-focused, being relevancy based, behaviourally differentiated from other parties, connected with people, and the idea that we were really a movement for change.”
Jamie Helly and Charlotte Barker of the Dublin brand-design firm Dynamo came on board, and a marketing team was assembled. Concepts like “the citizen, self-reliance and compassion, openness, inventiveness, freedom, transformation were tossed around”.
Permutations around “citizen” and “renewal were tried for the name. In the end, with a week to go, they plumped for Renua Ireland. In one sense it is the Irish for New Era, but it also sounds like the English word renewal. (The fada was dropped from the “e” to avoid confusion with the quango New Era, which translates to Irish as Ré Nua.) “It works in different languages,” says Toolan. “There is also a backstory narrative to this. It’s a development of Reform Alliance and also of Reboot Ireland.” There is also the Renua logo, a bird or perhaps a flower, with flashes of colour – a signal that the party does not want to be compartmentalised.
But, for all the organisation, how will the party do in the general election? Two other TDs have joined, Billy Timmins and Terence Flanagan, as has Creighton’s husband, Senator Paul Bradford. In all 140 others have been identified as possible candidates. Creighton believes the number of Renua TDs after the election will run into double figures, and she says that it intends to be in government. “This is all about offering people a real alternative that has the potential to transform Ireland. The number of seats is academic. It’s about having a huge influence on the outlook and delivery of that government,” she says.
At the party launch, on Friday morning, she declared, “We intend to govern in the sunshine . . . We should trust Irish citizens with the truth. We think that enticing new blood, new thinking and new decisionmaking at the highest possible level” should be encouraged.
Renua? Or sean scéal? Time will tell.