Thursday 18 December 2014

If it looks like a party, talks like a party, then surely to God it must be a party . . . no?

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Published 12/06/2014 | 02:30

Terence Flanagan,TD (centre) with Lucinda CreightonTD and her husband Senator Paul Bradford (left)  at the launch of the document on Political Reform  by the Reform Alliance at a news conference in Dublin yesterday. Picture: Tom Burke
Terence Flanagan,TD (centre) with Lucinda CreightonTD and her husband Senator Paul Bradford (left) at the launch of the document on Political Reform by the Reform Alliance at a news conference in Dublin yesterday. Picture: Tom Burke
Denis Naughten TD (left) who chaired the meeting with Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames, and Billy Timmins TD, authors of the document on Political Reform, which was launched by the Reform Alliance at a news conference in Dublin yesterday. Picture: Tom Burke

DUCK! Here comes the Reform Alliance Party. Sure if it looks like a party, walks like a party, talks like a party, then surely to God it must be a darn party, yes?

No, absolutely not, under no circumstances . . . or, well, not yet anyway. The politicians currently known as the Reform Alliance may be a disparate bunch, but the two senators and four TDs were all united in their protestations yesterday that collectively, they're simply what Denis Naughten insisted is "a grouping of like-minded Independents".

The six – deputies Lucinda Creighton, Billy Timmins, Denis Naughten and Terence Flanagan, and senators Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy-Eames – were crammed into the smallest meeting-room in Buswell's Hotel for the launch of the, um, alliance's policy document on political reform.

The room really was quite snug, once all the media piled in too in order to try and figure out the true meaning of such an amorphous political entity as a Reform Alliance which produces comprehensive policies; which broadly agrees on fiscal and social issues and which consists of former members of Fine Gael – but which is NOT a political party, no siree.

What does it all signify? Alliances aren't the Done Thing in Irish politics. One is either a paid-up member of an established party, or a voluntary independent (elected on a specific issue or platform) or an involuntary independent (one who walked or was pushed off the party plank over a contentious vote), or part of a technical group (a loose conglomeration assembled to secure speaking rights in the Dail chamber).

The reporters in Buswell's were suspicious. "Why is Lucinda standing at the back of the room – has there been a split?" asked one journalist, pointing to the fact that Denis, Billy and Fidelma were doing all the talking at the top table, while Lucinda, Terence and Paul stood quietly at the back. Billy hastened to explain that when the alliance launched a previous policy document, it was he who stood quietly at the back. "So there's no leadership heave?" the hopeful hack persisted. "We don't have a leadership," explained the Wicklow TD cheerfully.

"It's just that we just don't see the point of being all piled up here," chirped up Fidelma.

"Where's Peter?" asked another conspirator, referring to the missing RA member, Dublin South TD Peter Mathews, who always enjoys the opportunity to interact with the media. "He's in Europe today," his colleagues explained.

The questions about the duck-like proportions of their set-up continued. "People are wondering where you guys are heading – have you at least held discussions recently about the prospect of forming a new party?" asked yet another journalist.

Denis managed not to release a string of oaths, but patiently reiterated their mantra. "We've made it crystal-clear what the Reform Alliance is – it's a grouping of like-minded Independents who have set out two objectives. One: to gain speaking rights inside in the Oireachtas and, two, to put forward proposals that we want to see delivered in the short-term," he explained again.

The Roscommon deputy reckoned that the alliance has the public's backing in seeking to overhaul how parliament does its business.

"There's a huge public outcry in relation to what's going on at the moment. People feel completely alienated from decisions that are being made by Government. The Government seems to be completely detached from the public mood on the ground," said Denis.

And certainly, there are a few crowd-pleasers in the Reform Alliance's reform document, which is bristling with bright ideas, including the abolition of top-up pensions for future Taoisigh and senior and junior ministers, the imposition of term limits on cabinet ministers, reducing the power wielded by the Sir Humphreys (secretary generals and the like) of the Permanent Government.

Unsurprisingly, there is also a proposal to reform the Whip system, given that all seven of the gang lost the party whip – Denis in 2011 over the closure of Roscommon Hospital's emergency department, and the rest over the abortion bill last summer.

And Irish governments have a history of applying the whip with a ferocity which would bring tears of pride to the eyes of a dominatrix.

In the past 30 years, just 54 individual TDs – a mere 3pc of all deputies elected in that time – have voted against their party. And of those, two-thirds languished on the backbenches for the rest of their political careers.

"There isn't a great history of TDs flourishing after they lose the party whip," agreed Lucinda afterwards. But she was showing no signs of being daunted by this statistic. After all, every opinion poll indicates that the next Dail could be stuffed to the gunnels with Independents.

So, it could be party-time for the Reform Alliance, if you follow their drift.

Lise Hand

Irish Independent

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