Stephen Donnelly in race to raise €1m war chest
New party set for early election Coalition may need 'third wheel'
The new political party being founded by TDs Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy, Roisin Shortall and Senator Katherine Zappone will be officially launched within weeks, with an immediate target of raising €1m to fight the next election, the Sunday Independent has learned.
None of the four Oireachtas members would comment about their plans this weekend, but it is understood they are determined to learn from the prolonged formation of Lucinda Creighton's Renua party and try to capitalise on whatever enthusiasm is generated by their announcement.
It is believed they want to be ready as quickly as possible for a general election, which could happen as soon as the autumn. Last week, the Taoiseach seemed to deviate from his set piece statement that the Government would run until April - its full term - when he said it would run until the Programme for Government was completed, and added: "The Constitution is very clear that the Taoiseach of the day has the ultimate responsibility to call an election…That's my responsibility. I accept that responsibility and I will make my decision in due course."
The formation of the new party comes as confidence rises within the Coalition that it will be returned to power - but with the growing realisation that a "third wheel" may be needed to prop up the next government. Fine Gael Cabinet ministers believe Labour will be "annihilated" in the polls but are anxious to return to Government with the junior coalition partner and the support of another grouping or independents if needed.
Donnelly's new party will have a target of raising €1m, a figure he has previously set as the minimum necessary for a new party to take on the State-funded established parties.
Legislation governing political donations limits individual donations to €1,000 per deputy.
But once the party is officially registered, individuals wishing to support it will be able to donate an additional €2,500 each to the party.
It is understood that it is felt the most realistic way to reach their funding target is through crowd funding. An internet campaign to this end is expected to be launched soon.
The principals of the new party have been meeting secretly for a number of months and it is understood that they have neither approached nor been approached by any other members of the Oireachtas so far. Nor are there any celebrity candidates in the wings, it is understood.
There are, as yet, no indications as to who will take on the position of party leader, but speculation suggests that Donnelly is the most likely candidate. He has had the highest profile throughout the current Dail and gained popularity when he refused to take a position on the Oireachtas banking inquiry, objecting to what he saw as the Taoiseach's politicisation of the committee.
But in more recent times, Catherine Murphy has been the most prominent of the four due to her persistent work leading up to the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry into IBRC transactions.
Senator Katherine Zappone has been high profile too of late due to her campaigning work during the marriage equality referendum; and Roisin Shortall, the only one of the four with ministerial experience, is also held in high regard because of her principled stand over the health service. She resigned her position as junior minister for health under Fine Gael's James Reilly and left the Labour Party.
When Donnelly first revealed, in the Sunday Independent last January, his desire to see a new political movement, he said he wanted to see something based on "progressive social democratic principles." He said he envisioned "a combination of several aspects of social democracy - excellence of public service such as public health, an emphasis on enterprise to pay for it, and a recognition of the value of community."
He added: "The Labour Party might say they are social democrats but just having it on their website doesn't make it so."
At that time Catherine Murphy, a one-time Labour Party member, had been approached as a possible recruit to the alliance of independent deputies by TD Shane Ross. But she was quoted as saying she did not believe that group could get consensus on economic issues.
Questions are now being asked about whether the members of the new party, with their disparate political backgrounds, will have the same problem. Donnelly is frequently described as right of centre, but he has described himself in the past as "left of centre on social issues, but a strong advocate of economic responsibility and prudent management".
A source close to the new party nexus pointed out yesterday that that description was borne out by Donnelly's 60-page Budget submission last October.
"Stephen is definitely not right of anything on social issues so he won't have any difficulty seeing eye to eye with the others and I don't think they'll have any problem with him. And on the economy he's pro enterprise and pro jobs. Who would quarrel with that?"
It is understood that, as yet, there has been little consideration given to the number of candidates that might be put forward, where seats might be sought or even how many deputies they would hope to have elected to the next Dail.
"That's all to be worked on," a source close to the putative party said yesterday. "I'm told that the initial response has been very good, very enthusiastic. Now let's hope that all those people out there who have been screaming for something new and different and vibrant will give a few bob so that the party can have a fighting chance when the election is called."
Yesterday the leader of Renua, Lucinda Creighton, said it was "close to impossible" to establish a new party at this stage, especially if it is an autumn election. "I don't know how much Ireland needs another left-wing party and it's a fairly crowed market but I wish them well," she said.
Both Coalition parties will have their manifestos and election teams in place by September, which would facilitate an autumn election, but a senior Labour source said yesterday: "There is an agreement between the Tanaiste and Taoiseach's office that we will go in spring next year." And a Labour minister said: "The far side of Christmas is the preferred option but anything can happen."
Senior FG ministers see the new development as potentially positive for themselves."The more Independent candidates in the field, it's the better for us," an FG minister said - a remark that suggests some in government will find it hard to see any grouping of Independents as an actual political party.
"We will come back with over 60 seats and Labour will have 15 and then you will need a couple of Independents after that," the minister said.
Another minister said: "People will be confused by all the options and return to the stability of the established political parties."
Senior FG figures also suggested the party is open to approaching controversial Tipperary TD Michael Lowry to prop up the next government. Galway's Noel Grealish and Kerry's Tom Fleming are also seen as Independent TDs with a good chance of being returned, who could be relied on to support a future Coalition.