Stephen Collins: Watch out for the new parties and alliances as election looms

‘In the past few days a rival group of Independents TDs and senators have engaged in talks aimed at forming a more ideologically coherent left-wing alliance’

‘Former Labour TD, Róisín Shortall (above), had been talking to left-wing Independent Catherine Murphy, Wicklow TD Stephen Donnelly and same-sex marriage campaigner Senator Katherine Zappone.’ Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES

‘Former Labour TD, Róisín Shortall (above), had been talking to left-wing Independent Catherine Murphy, Wicklow TD Stephen Donnelly and same-sex marriage campaigner Senator Katherine Zappone.’ Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES

 

Speculation about another alliance of Independent TDs is the latest manifestation of the pre-election fever now sweeping through the ranks of these who inhabit the precincts of Leinster House.

Already a new political party, Renua, is up and running, Shane Ross and Finian McGrath are attempting to develop an alliance of Independent politicians inside and outside the Dáil and now an effort is being made to put a new left-wing grouping together.

The hard-left Trotskyite parties are also attempting to develop a co-ordinated approach to the election.

With opinion polls showing that about a quarter of the electorate is prepared to vote for Independents or smaller parties a huge opportunity clearly exists, but the competition to try and tap into that mood is hotting up.

Renua was first out of the blocks early in the year, although there had been speculation for more than a year that the TDs who left Fine Gael over the abortion issue in 2013 would ultimately end up forming a new party.

In the event, three ex-Fine Gael TDs and one senator, led by Lucinda Creighton, took the plunge and a new party was born. The initial surprise was that Renua did not aim to become a niche party with conservative policies on social issues.

Instead the party took the view that on issues such as abortion members could adopt positions that accorded with their conscience. The emphasis has been on buzzwords such as openness, change and reform without too much detail about what all of that would entail apart from the need to abolish the whip system.

There have been some comparisons with the foundation of the Progressive Democrats in 1985 but the economic circumstances now are very different. Then the economy was stagnant and an air of hopelessness was all-pervasive. Now the economy is on a clear recovery path after the crash.

More to the point, the PDs set out with a series of detailed and provocative policies on a range of issues rather than aiming to be another catch-all party with a feelgood message.

Still, the TDs who formed Renua had the guts to set up a new political party, with all of the organisational difficulties and funding headaches that entails. They put forward Cllr Patrick McKee as a candidate in the Carlow-Kilkenny byelection. He got a reasonable vote, coming in in fourth place ahead of the Labour Party.

With three sitting TDs and a few more potential candidates who could be in contention for Dáil seats, the clear aim is to have the balance of power in the Dáil after the election.

Alliance of Independents

Their intention is to build an alliance of Independents inside and outside the Dáil committed to common set of broad policies. A recent meeting in Tullamore was attended by councillors from around the country but so far the expected launch of the alliance has not taken place. The aim is not to form a political party but to get the best of both worlds by attracting votes under the Independent banner while having the leverage of a political party in post-election negotiations.

McGrath, who first ran for the Dáil in 1997 and was elected in 2002, is conscious that Independents are squeezed when an election campaign hits its final phase and voters begin to focus on who will form the next government. It is all very fine to offer the electorate fresh faces but they have to make themselves relevant to the big issues of the day.

Waterford TD John Halligan and the recent victor in the Roscommon south Leitrim byelection, Michael Fitzmaurice, also form part of the group, which spans a wide ideological spectrum.

In the past few days a rival group of Independent TDs and senators has engaged in talks aimed at forming a more ideologically coherent left-wing alliance. Former Labour TD Róisín Shortall had been talking to left-wing Independent Catherine Murphy, Wicklow TD Stephen Donnelly and same-sex marriage campaigner Senator Katherine Zappone.

Donnelly is the surprise member of this group as he started off his Dáil career as an ally of Ross. Over the past three years there has been speculation that he would join the Ross-led Independents, Fianna Fáil and Renua, but he is now engaged in talks with the new left alliance.

The Ross-McGrath grouping had hoped to lure TDs such as Murphy and Donnelly into its ranks, so it will be fascinating to see where they all end up.

United Left Alliance disintegration

The hard left also has work to do if it wants to present a coherent front to the electorate. In the run-up to the last election the Socialist Party and the offshoots of the Socialist Workers’ Party came together as the United Left Alliance, which won five Dáil seats. However, the alliance quickly disintegrated in the election’s aftermath

.

The Socialist Party has managed to win two byelections, with Ruth Coppinger and Paul Murpy joining Joe Higgins in the Dáil. Those victories, along with an impressive performance in Dublin and Cork in the local elections, demonstrated the opportunity that exists for the hard left.

Ultimately the question is whether the proliferation of small parties and alliances will lead to the further fragmentation of Irish politics or whether they will end up getting in each other’s way. They might even scare voters back to the stability represented by the traditional parties.

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