John Downing: What else beyond anti-abortion law does this alliance stand for?
Published 27/01/2014 | 02:30
CREDIT where it is due, the Reform Alliance had a good day at the RDS in Dublin on Saturday. But we remain as wise as ever about whether we are going to see a new political party emerge, what sort of party it might be, and what kind of support could it get.
Lucinda Creighton and her colleagues would have been panned if they had not pulled in a crowd. But in fact they are entitled to say they had an attendance of about 1,500 people.
The hall holds in excess of 1,000 people and it was solidly full throughout the day.
There was also a certain overflow of people standing at the sides and in the coffee shop, with some other people also arriving a bit later and others leaving that bit earlier.
There were more men than women and a preponderance of over-50s. But the gender mix was not bad and there was a strong cohort of people in their 20s with a certain absence of the mid-30s and early 40s age group. The latter is probably explained by family demands on a Saturday. All in all, it was a balanced audience.
There was also a lot of good, strong talk about Irish politics from the podium and from the floor. The contribution of Dr Eddie Molloy at the final session about the economy was in itself justification enough for the event.
His eloquent outline on why attention to equality and tackling poverty is good for business should be required reading for all of us.
Yesterday's opinion poll in the 'Sunday Independent' was interesting as it still showed that one-third of those asked by pollsters Millward Brown support the general idea of a new political party. We are again left with former Tanaiste and Progressive Democrats' founder, Michael McDowell's pithy assertion: "There is a gap in the market."
An answer to the second half of his aphorism: "But is there a market in the gap?" remains as elusive as when he first wrote it over a year ago. This writer looked for pointers on the way forward by listening and observing carefully the proceedings at the RDS.
And here follows some tentative answers to the questions most of us were left asking as we left.
First off, we are still not entirely sure whether these seven Fine Gael refuseniks actually want to form a party. The signals are at best mixed, with Roscommon TD Denis Naughten insisting that this is not about forming a party but about stimulating mass debate around political reform.
At the close of proceedings, Creighton was saying something similar. But there was also more than a hint that this was all about testing the waters with a view to forming a new party. "It's just not something we're focusing on at all at the moment. We really are trying to talk about new politics, and not new parties," Ms Creighton said.
So we can take it that we are looking at something that could, all going well, lead to the launch of a new political party – quite probably before the year is out.
The next question is what would this party – with 'Reform Alliance' as a working title – look like? What kind of policies would it have?
On Saturday we heard repeated pleas to help ease the burden of bureaucracy on small business.
For example, one young woman spoke of the VAT threshold pitched at €37,000 and argued that it was far too low.
This also fed into general discussions about rates of tax. It is clearly an issue with huge popular appeal. But all the other political parties – not least the government ones – will be keen to speak to it.
There were repeated calls for reform in the health system whose problems have bedevilled us for 30 years now and carry with them a pervasive feeling of defeatism. Realistic-looking plans in that regard definitely have potential.
Otherwise there was a scatter-gun range of political reform ideas. Many of these were difficult to assess and a nuts-and-bolts discussion is probably for another day. But there were ideas tabled. Dr Molloy, here again, spoke about the need to reform political culture as culture always trumps structure.
Much has been made of the big cheers on two occasions for mention of the 'RA septet's' vote against abortion legislation. It was not the highlight of the day.
But it does serve to remind us of the key question that the Reform Alliance must keep trying to answer if they are to advance: what else beyond bucking the Government whip on the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill does the Reform Alliance actually stand for?
It will take more than a successful 'monster rally' to answer that one. But for the moment we must acknowledge that Creighton and her colleagues have made a good start.