Thursday 29 September 2016

Curtain up for Fine Gael rebels' glee club

The hesitant Reform Alliance could be seen as all showbiz and no substance, writes John Drennan

Published 02/02/2014 | 02:30

CENTRE STAGE: Lucinda Creighton at the Reform Alliance’s rally. Photo: Barbara Lindberg
CENTRE STAGE: Lucinda Creighton at the Reform Alliance’s rally. Photo: Barbara Lindberg

When the spin doctor in chief, PJ Mara, famously launched the second Bertie Ahern campaign with a quip of "It's showtime, folks", the great doyen of spin was immediately rounded on for his display of honesty.

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Ironically, the critique was incorrect on more fronts than the honesty one, for while showtime politics is routinely disparaged in favour of substance, it is no harm for parties to be surrounded by some element of show business.

At a minimum this suggests that they have interesting things to say and there certainly is a shortage of people saying interesting things in Irish politics these days.

In the case of the Reform Alliance, the grouping has certainly not suffered from an absence of the politics of show business.

In their conference at the RDS there was even an element of pantomime politics in the excitement with which the mass uprising of the Pro-Life 'spooks' greeted Lucinda's valedictory address with a standing ovation.

Increasingly, though, the wheel is being turned on the Reform Alliance to show there is substance as well as show business when it comes to the party's future direction.

The issue was somewhat coldly summarised by one putative supporter last week who noted "we've had enough foreplay, now show us some leg or get off the stage".

However, evolving into a political party as distinct from their alleged status as a glee club for former enemies of Enda poses difficulties beyond funding for the RA.

The biggest problem they face is that the actual internal structure of the Reform Alliance is deeply unstable for should they move now to become a party they would immediately lose the support of Denis Naughten.

It is unlikely others such as Billy Timmins will be enthusiastic either and to put it bluntly a Reform Alliance party that does not have Billy and Denis will look more like the Progressive Democrats at their ramshackle end than the brave new crusading venture they purport to be.

And that's before we come to the problematic future of Peter Mathews who may yet decide a life in Europe looking Wolfgang Schauble in the eye represents a better option than starting a new hesitant party from the bottom up.

For now a Reform Alliance, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, has decided to embrace the ageless Irish political tradition of sitting on the fence.

However, the cautious party that is not a party political striptease is receiving an increasingly chilly response from an Irish political class that is only interested in process rather than philosophy.

This means political discourse in Ireland is confined to who will win and lose elections, who in Cabinet is fighting with other ministers, who is in Cabinet and who is not in Cabinet, who might be in Cabinet next or who is the 'Dear Leader' looking at with a wintry eye.

Anything that fails to meet such criteria is greeted at best with a puzzled indifferent eye and growing hostility.

The Reform Alliance variant of this school of discourse is the single issue of "are you going to be a party or are you not going to be a party?"

And inevitably the failure of the RA to "put this issue to bed" has been a source of first puzzlement, then annoyance, and claims that this lot are all about "show business rather than substance".

The RA will and have argued that they are trying to pilot a new way of doing politics that prioritises policy over process.

There is after all scant point in creating a party until they first find out via events such as "that do" in the RDS what it is exactly that the citizens want politicians to do.

Some would say there is a great deal more substance to a school of politics that prioritises policy over numbers, but, it is not something that is too easily appreciated in the rat-run of political discourse.

In truth, time may yet relegate those concerns to the past for it should be remembered the party that is not a party has not ruled out becoming a party some day.

In the wake of the RDS conference the RA's Paul Bradford, whilst maintaining a defensive line on the "momentum for ideas" front, noted that while our "current work in progress is simply to be good politicians in the Dail and Seanad", he was "not ruling out anything".

Bradford's subsequent declaration that he "couldn't second guess where I will be in six or 12 months' time", left many wondering if the abstruse senator was playing the role of the tethered goat that is sent out to see what beasts are attracted and how sharply they growl at the prospect of a new party.

The voicing of similar sentiments by Fidelma Healy Eames also attracted curious comments over whether both were playing the role of the necessary child that, when it comes to the emperor's new suit, is sent out to say that which the adults dare not.

So did Bradford accidentally let the cat out of the bag about the RA's intent to decommission from its current status as a momentum for ideas and become a fully fledged party?

They will say otherwise, but, it would take a very clever cat to elude any sack where Mr Bradford controls the string.

For now becoming a party isn't being uttered within the Reform Alliance, but, even in the fast-changing landscape of Irish politics six months is an awfully long time.

Playing stoic Denis to Iron Lady Lucinda

As Valerie Trierweiler discovered recently there is no tougher position in public life than being the partner or spouse of a high-profile politician.

Paul Bradford is in fairness a somewhat different political creature to Ms Trierweiler, but, the status of Lucinda Creighton as the uncrowned queen of the Reform Alliance means a great deal more attention is now being paid to the man seen to be the new queen's consort and chief consigliore.

It is perhaps ironic that in Leinster House a man has finally become a victim of sexism, even if it is of the reverse variant.

However, in the merry way of Leinster House, Bradford's nick-name is 'Denis' which is an obvious reference to Margaret Thatcher's husband.

Mind you, while there is much conjecture of the "who wears the trousers?" variety when it comes to the relationship between the softly spoken obscure senator and the outspoken Lucinda, it should be noted that Denis Thatcher was far more influential in shaping his wife's thinking than the Tory cabinet.

This is certainly the case with Bradford, whose role in the formation of the Reform Alliance is far more than the one trick pony of being Lucinda's consort.

Bradford's liking for pots of tea and lengthy philosophical chats in the Dail bar has seen the Reform Alliance attracting the nickname of the "Tea Party".

However, the jibe is accidentally apt, for Bradford's strongest political influences are the very diverse figures of Ronald Reagan and Vlacev Havel, the Czech philosopher intellectual who ushered communism out of Czechoslovakia.

On another level the influences are understandable for, while nervous liberals are more likely to raise the spooks and spectres of his pro-life views when attacking the Reform Alliance, Bradford's central ideology is a loathing for communism and illiberal liberals.

His conservatism, ultimately is of the high Tory rather than martinet variety for while the Fine Gael successors to the Fianna Fail bar lobby get somewhat nervous when Bradford starts to talk about "the Havel stuff", he is more closely connected to the rural aristocratic wing of the party than the Garret FitzGerald set.

Though he is an understated figure, Bradford is one of the clearest thinkers in Leinster House who is as likely to make Lucinda's mind up for her as vice-versa.

Indeed, far from being dragged into the maelstrom of the Reform Alliance he is as disillusioned with a political world where "you could be following Micheal Martin in the morning and Enda Kenny in the afternoon and it would make no difference".

When it comes to the capacity of the Reform Alliance to make that difference, though, he will always stand discreetly in the back-ground. The quiet consort will be as influential as his colourful spouse in whatever less travelled road the Reform Alliance decides to take.

Irish Independent

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