Thursday 27 November 2014

Principled policies in search of a party

While the Reform Alliance considers the niceties of procedure, the rest of us have moved on, writes Brendan O'Connor

Published 15/06/2014 | 02:30

Illustration: Tom Halliday

SO, according to the latest polls, the Labour Party is now languishing at 4 per cent. Fine Gael, the main party of government, enjoys the support of just one in five voters, at 22 per cent, which means it is at level pegging with a party that has serious unanswered questions hanging over it about the murder of mothers of young children among other things.

Even Fianna Fail, a party that has been demonised far more than Sinn Fein in recent years, is still in there with a shout at the top, just 4 per cent off the biggest parties.

Now call me crazy but I would have thought all this suggests a major gap in the market. For starters, people hate the Government parties. And for seconders, they hate them so much they are willing to overlook murder and the economic collapse of the country.

Imagine if you had a party that was neither in government nor guilty of murder or economic murder. Imagine you had a party with a clean bill of health, set up in response to the new realities we face, and tailored to cater to the more than half of the people who think we should have a new party, and to the nearly half of the people who don't know who they would vote for if there was an election tomorrow.

There is not just a gap in the market, there is a gaping hole begging to be filled.

But it seems no one is willing to take the bull by the horns. So last Wednesday, we saw the Reform Alliance out again, this time outlining its policies, while stressing that it is not a political party. And frankly, Irish people are finding this one hard to get our heads around.

Parties without policies we are used to. No one expects political parties to be subject to the tyranny of consistency anymore. But policies without a party is a whole new ball game for us, and we are unsure how we are expected to react to them. So a bunch of disgruntled Independents, ex-Fine Gaelers, are letting it be known that they share a bunch of ideas. Which is very nice for them. But what it means for the rest of us, no one is quite sure.

One would always be suspicious of the tendency among the political establishment to paint people who walk from political parties on a matter of principle as being drama queens who are just looking for attention. This is known as "pirouetting on the plinth" syndrome, after Pat Rabbitte's testy putdown of Colm Keaveney, after Keaveney walked away from Labour because he felt Labour had sold out all their principles, particularly in the area of looking after the most vulnerable in our society.

Of course, we know now that rather than dismissing Keaveney as an attention-seeker, Rabbitte should have actually listened to Keaveney back then and paid attention to the point he was making. Because Keaveney was right, and most of Labour's voters have now pirouetted off after him over precisely the same issue.

But while you might generally admire people who stick by their principles in the face of ridicule from their more pragmatic colleagues, the longer the Reform Alliance game goes on, the more they start to look ever so slightly self-regarding and tortured.

Even the policies they unveiled last Wednesday seemed a bit self-absorbed, being as they were mainly about whips and the way government works. While these are important ideas, and while they do attempt perhaps to answer the questions over the democratic revolution that never was in this country, they are perhaps not questions that are to the fore in most people's minds right now. They are certainly not policies that are going to divert the masses from running to Sinn Fein.

But they are good, in so far as they go, and they do speak of some fresh thinking. The notion that politicians' pay should be linked to performance is probably completely unworkable in reality but it is an intriguing notion. Certainly some attempt to prevent people who destroy the country from walking away with massive pensions would be welcome.

The Alliance's criticism of the Economic Management Council, the Cabinet-within-the-Cabinet of three teachers and a union official that effectively runs the country, was also valid, as is the notion of introducing term limits for ministers.

These are all good, fresh ideas about the process of government, but the question most people would probably have liked answered by the Reform Alliance is where does it stand on austerity and would it support Sinn Fein in government.

For better or worse, these are the political questions of the day, and these are how we judge our politicians at the moment. So before we can decide whether we like the cut of the Reform Alliance's jib, we would really like to know its stance on the broader issues. Reform is important, sure, but maybe not right now.

Ironically, when they pirouette out to discuss Dail reform, the RA people can seem like they are ever so slightly in an ivory tower, sitting there discussing the niceties of how things work up in Leinster House, when the rest of us really have far more pressing concerns about the real world. Indeed, they are in danger at times of just looking like a bunch of people who are embittered about the whip system, rather than being politicians who are embittered about the state of the country.

Of course, the reason why the Reform Alliance is reluctant to get drawn on the big issues of the day, and the state of the country in general, could be because it doesn't want to be seen as having any particular stance on these things right now. Because the disparate elements floating around right now that might make up a new party come from both ends of the political spectrum.

Therefore maybe the RA people do not want to commit to being either right wing or left wing in their outlook until they find some peculiar point in the centre that might draw together some more Independents, a point perhaps that can accommodate Shane Ross as much as Richard Boyd Barrett as much as Stephen Donnelly. Who knows?

The net effect of all this is that while the Reform Alliance agonises, we have all moved on. And while it refuses to fill the gap, Sinn Fein is filling it. There's a huge floating vote out there and it's not going to be won over by nebulous ideas about parliamentary procedure. And indeed, soon enough, we will stop listening to the RA. Soon enough, it won't make the papers anymore that a bunch of Independents shares these vague opinions.

Lucinda Creighton, whether people agreed or not with her reasons for walking from Fine Gael, came out of that party with a certain amount of goodwill and political capital. She is rapidly squandering that capital and that goodwill on non-events like monster meetings and policy-document launches. Until she has something substantial to offer to the political landscape in this country, a country that is crying out for a party it can believe in, perhaps she should stay quiet. Because more and more, the RA is looking like a bunch of people who can't even get it together to start a political party but who crave attention nonetheless.

There are those who would even say that their time has come and gone and the window of opportunity is closing. You would hope though that there is still one last chance there, that the RA and the broader elements floating around out there still have time to put their differences aside and to coalesce into something that stands for something and that has a position on where Ireland should go from here.

The current disillusionment of the electorate alone should garner them some support. Otherwise, by the next election, the RA may just look like a bunch of embittered ex-Fine Gaelers for whom people will have no compelling reason to vote, and one of the most promising political careers in the country, that of Lucinda Creighton, will have been wasted.

Brendan O'Connor

Sunday Independent

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