Liz O'Donnell: Reform Alliance has a long way to go before it can begin to match the PDs
Published 28/01/2014 | 02:30
If the Reform Alliance wants to be taken seriously, it needs to knuckle down and commit to a clear policy platform
The attendance at the Reform Alliance gathering this weekend was instructive. A crowd of about a thousand is hardly a monster turnout when seven Oireachtas members claim to be leading a new movement. Leaving out media and guest speakers who added a bit of box office, the event failed to impress. And I am not talking just numbers. Where is the new policy? The meat in the sandwich?
In the wake of a banking collapse and IMF bailout, there is an understandable appetite for political change and a fresh start. But equally the polls show a cooling down in such fervour, as the ship of state is steadied.
Human nature is such that residual insecurity breeds conservatism; it is unlikely there would be significant support for an alternative economic approach to that pursued by the current Coalition. All the signs are that support for the looney left and Sinn Fein has plateaued.
So, where is the gap in the market? Is being exiled from Fine Gael for voting against a restrictive abortion regime enough to justify a new party? I think not. Is all this just attention seeking? There is a fitting Spanish expression to describe a flamenco dancer who lacks substance: "All fan and no feet."
To start and sustain a new political party takes a few essentials. The first is talent and intellectual rigour. The second is money or capacity to raise it. The third is courage to take on vested interests when formulating policy.
Not all radical ideas are popular. New parties must be prepared for heavy criticism, even denigration by the media and their political competitors in the mainstream.
The Progressive Democrats, with whom I was an elected representative for 15 years, was routinely characterised as 'Thatcherite', a term of abuse in the political lexicon.
It was alleged the party was only interested in the wealthy. Untrue, of course, but it suited our competition in Fine Gael and Labour to misrepresent our position. We were, after all, an obstacle to them being in government. Small and all as we were, we were big enough to form several coalition governments with Fianna Fail over a 20-year period.
Inevitably with all this talk of a new party, comparisons are drawn with the now defunct Progressive Democrats.
Founded by Des O'Malley, Mary Harney, Michael McDowell and others in 1986, the party offered a fresh approach on a whole range of policy areas ranging from tax reform, the environment, enterprise, Northern Ireland, separation of church and state and what is generally termed good governance or standards in public life.
They were heady days. Large crowds spontaneously gathered at inaugural meetings. Single party government under Fianna Fail had proved to be corrupt. Abuse of power such as the tapping of journalists' phones and economic mismanagement under Haughey left people longing for change.
The new TDs were drawn mainly from Fianna Fail's disgruntled ranks but many non-aligned people were attracted by the policies and integrity of Des O'Malley as an experienced and trusted minister.
Michael McDowell drew support from the Fine Gael stronghold of Garret FitzGerald in Dublin South-East and Ann Colley swept up votes for the new party in Dublin South.
Pat Cox, TV reporter and journalist, was the first general secretary and later became a TD. Journalist Geraldine Kennedy was elected in Dun Laoghaire.
Mary Harney had left Fianna Fail on principle to support the Anglo Irish Agreement. Robert Molloy, Pearse Wyse, Maureen Quill and Peadar Clohessy wrestled long and hard with their allegiance to the FF mothership before leaving to join up.
What the PDs lacked in numbers they had in experience, coherence, talent and the ability to raise finance. It was always going to be a "white-knuckle ride." No seat was safe. Each election was high risk. We could never depend on safe seats.
We had to get first-preference votes since we could not depend on transfers. I was elected in three successive elections in Dublin South.
By 2007, the party had run out of road in our always precarious liaison with Fianna Fail, due mainly to financial probity eruptions. I was proud to be part of a progressive project which broke the mould in Irish politics and contributed to the modernising of Ireland.
We had many enemies, mostly on the Left, who despised our economic approach of being pro-enterprise, pro-competition, and pro-public service reform. Our tax policy worked.
We cut taxes on work to incentivise job creation and we achieved full employment. We cut capital and corporate taxes and yields multiplied. This allowed unprecedented spending on health, education and the elderly.
People knew what we stood for. We were not just "having a national conversation".
If the Reform Alliance wants to be taken seriously it needs to knuckle down and commit to a clear policy platform.