One time an announcement by three sitting TDs that they were launching a new political party would have been a big news story. This week, when Catherine Murphy, Róisín Shortall and Stephen Donnelly launched the Social Democrats, they were met with the equivalent of a collective shoulder shrug.
“Another week, another new political grouping” best summarises the reaction of many reporters, commentators and indeed voters.
This reaction may be unfair to their efforts, but it is understandable. New political party fatigue is already setting in.
This time last year a window of real opportunity opened for a substantial new force in Irish politics. Discontent with the Government was at its most intense. Sinn Féin, having risen, had flatlined. Fianna Fáil’s recovery was minimal. All the momentum was with the Independents and others.
In several polls a majority of the electorate repeatedly expressed a wish to vote for someone or something other than Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.
A year ago, one had a sense that if politicians like Shane Ross, Lucinda Creighton, Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and Michael Fitzmaurice could offer a coherent joint platform to the electorate, they could have provided a real alternative for government ahead of the election.
It didn’t come to pass. Maybe the personality clashes were just too intense. Maybe policy differences couldn’t be bridged. Perhaps some egos couldn’t be accommodated. Maybe there was insufficient compromise. Perhaps they lacked political mediation or management skills.
Instead Ross, McGrath and Fitzmaurice, with
and Tom Fleming, set up an alliance of Independents. This loose collective is led in the public mind by Ross, and Senator Feargal Quinn is now its parliamentary chair.
Those who turned up at a launch last week, in addition to the Independent deputies, included Independent councillors from Mulhuddart, Rathfarnham, Donegal, Louth, and Galway, and Sunday Independent journalist Carol Hunt, who will run in Dún Laoghaire.
Meanwhile, and separately, Lucinda Creighton, who with other TDs left Fine Gael over the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in 2013, has set up the new right-of-centre party, Renua. With an influx of volunteers, mostly new to politics, they have spent months developing a nationwide organisation and democratised internal structures.
They have also begun to roll out a slate of candidates. However, apart from sitting former Fine Gael deputies, most of these putative candidates have, as of yet, little profile in their constituencies.
The new party’s one notable coup was the recruitment of Kilkenny councillor Patrick McKee, who defected from Fianna Fáil to contest the recent byelection for Renua, and got a reasonable vote.
Creighton and her strategists have made some initial errors. When a party doesn't have a heritage or a track record and has not yet developed a comprehensive suite of policies, it is defined by its leading personalities. Creighton's profile was excellent. However, the decision to put Eddie Hobbs out front as the second face of the party may have taken from its standing.
And putting Terence Flanagan TD on prime time radio to discuss party policy on the day of the launch led to one of the most excruciating radio moments of the year. The new party’s rating in opinion polls thus far has been well within the margin of error.
It is against this background that the Social Democrats was launched. This looks like the new political entity with most potential, given the ability and profile of the three deputies involved. While Murphy, Shortall and Donnelly have clearly bonded, they still have an awful lot of party organisation work to do, and little time left in which to do it.
Their inability, for example, to agree which one of them would be leader suggests a lack of decision-making capacity at the core of this new enterprise.
It is also striking that no coherent political collective has emerged from those Independents and deputies from smaller parties who are further left on the political spectrum. Just after the last election the United Left Alliance looked like a nascent far-left political grouping, but it quickly became the disunited left alliance. There has been little cohesion on this point on the spectrum since.
Irish voters looking for new political choice are akin to supermarket shoppers tired of the established brands faced on shelves with an array of newly launched products, each claiming to be different.
Overwhelmed by the options and reluctant to read the details on the new labels, and told to worry about political chaos, some of those minded to shop around may revert to the comfort of traditional parties.