Saturday 20 December 2014

Time is ripe for a fresh party, but Independents continue to dither

Voters made their feelings clear at the polling booths, but Philip Ryan asks will this lead to a new option next time around

Published 08/06/2014 | 02:30

Lucinda Creighton TD is surrounded by press and well-wishers (with her husband, Senator Paul Bradford behind her - to the right) after giving the concluding speech at the Reform Conference held by the Reform Alliance at the RDS Concert Hall in Dublin, Ireland on Saturday 25 January 2014.
Lucinda Creighton TD is surrounded by press and well-wishers (with her husband, Senator Paul Bradford behind her - to the right) after giving the concluding speech at the Reform Conference held by the Reform Alliance at the RDS Concert Hall in Dublin, Ireland on Saturday 25 January 2014.
David Hall with Shane Ross, Catherine Murphy, RoisÌn Shortall and Stephen Donnelly.

IT was just days before the recent elections, and Independent TD Shane Ross was holding court with his supporters in the Goat Bar and Restaurant in south Dublin.

Around 120 people were invited but – not unlike the recent election turnout – only half of those who received invitations turned up at the meeting.

One of the main points of discussion was the public's appetite for a new party and whether Mr Ross should pursue this path. The group was split down the middle.

Half insisted an alliance of Independents was the best direction, reflecting the growing public disdain for the established political parties.

The rest believed Mr Ross should move towards joining a new political party which could realistically challenge for a place in government at a future general election.

There is undoubtedly a gap in the market for a new party, but what form it will take or who it will interest is far from clear.

A Sunday Independent/ Millward Brown opinion poll taken in May showed 53 per cent of the public want a new option when they go to the polling booth. Today's opinion poll shows this has increased to 54 per cent following last month's local election results.

When the ballot boxes were opened two weeks ago, after the local election, the traditional parties got a clear message from the electorate.

Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and especially Labour, all got a hammering, and even Sinn Fein failed to live up to the pre-election excitement.

Independent candidates –many facing the electorate for the first time – walked across the finish line with little sweat on their brows.

In some cases, their success was aided by the support of Independent TDs.

Four candidates who Mr Ross supported got elected to Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council and could potentially hold the balance of power in his local authority.

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly's assistant, Jennifer Whitmore, topped the poll in her constituency, with almost double the quota, and will now serve on Wicklow County Council.

Tom Curran, the husband of right-to-die campaigner, Marie Fleming, was also backed by Mr Donnelly and missed out by only a couple of votes.

Other independents, such as Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall, all succeeded in getting candidates over the line.

The realisation the independent brand is growing beyond the opposition benches of Leinster House has reignited interest in organising a new party. Long discussions over coffee have been taking place for almost two years among the centre-left members of the Dail's Technical Group, but nothing cohesive was ever agreed.

Then the enactment of the abortion legislation last year caused a split in Fine Gael, and seven members – including former junior minister, Lucinda Creighton – were forced out into the cold.

This led to two distinct groups seeking to form a new party: Ms Creighton led former Fine Gaelers, who would eventually become the Reform Alliance; and the centre and centre-left brigade of independents.

Fine Gael members include Terence Flanagan, Peter Mathews, Denis Naughton and Billy Timmins as well as senators, Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy Eames.

The Independents included Mr Ross, Mr Donnelly, Ms Shortall, Ms Murphy, along with John Halligan and Noel Grealish.

Both sides have spent months courting each other in the vain hope of breeding a political party. One Independent TD told the Sunday Independent: "We talked with Lucinda at a great deal of length last year and it looked like we were getting somewhere.

"We agreed we would do things together, which would

indicate independents could co-operate in a meaningful way."

However, in January, Ms Creighton and the rest of the Fine Gael splitters decided to hold their so-called monster rally under the banner of the Reform Alliance.

"She decided to have the conference without telling anyone," another Independent TD said.

"We were happy to talk to her and co-operate with her, but then she did this as if she was saying 'come follow me boys, I'm leading the charge.'"

None of the independents who Ms Creighton hoped would add credibility to the fledgling organisation attended the conference. Overall, it was felt the event failed to live up to expectations.

Despite their differences, however, both the Reform Alliance and the Dail Independents lent their support to mortgage debt campaigner David Hall's failed attempt to get elected in the Dublin West by-election.

Mr Ross, Mr Donnelly, Ms Murphy and Ms Shortall campaigned beside Ms Creighton and other Reform Alliance members.

Some of the group saw supporting Mr Hall as a 'dry run' for possible future campaigns.

Mr Hall, who is a former Fianna Fail member, finished fourth in the poll, despite having been an early favourite.

"It was meant to be a dry run, but the result was very disappointing," said one of his supporters.

Meanwhile, the Reform Alliance, while playing down suggestions of becoming a party, is about to launch a new political reform policy document.

The radical proposals include abolishing ministerial and taoisigh pensions and limiting secretaries-general to one term in office before they have to reapply for the position.

They also hope to make registering to vote compulsory once you reach 18.

Reform Alliance member Fidelma Healy Eames said anyone who agrees with their reforms is welcome to join.

"We are open to any politicians who are prepared to sign up to our policies and core principles," she said.

Most of the Independents from the Technical Group would not serve under Ms Creighton as leader and some have no interest in joining a party with former Fine Gael members.

The Reform Alliance is seen as almost neo-liberal in its economic views and its pro-life stance is also a drawback for the left-leaning TDs.

Mr Donnelly is believed to be interested in joining a new party as he realises this is the only way he can effectively bring about change. So far, however, the Wicklow politician has not received a formal approach to join a new political organisation.

Those close to him have said they "don't know what the wait is about" but they suspect things may move faster now that the elections are out of the way.

Mr Ross is also anxious to see movement as he believes a general election could be called in the coming months.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Ms Shortall said she is "very open" to a "new initiative in politics", but there is little chance she would pool resources with the Reform Alliance.

"I think there are lot of people who have a lot to contribute who are on the independent benches and I would certainly be open to seeing if common ground can be reached on a number of political principles," she added.

Ms Shortall categorically ruled out a return to the Labour Party, insisting it is "locked into austerity".

Then, to make matters even more complicated, Catherine Murphy – along with Independent TDs Maureen O'Sullivan, Thomas Pringle, John Halligan and Finian McGrath – recently set up the Independent Network.

The group elected 17 councillors and two MEPs – Nessa Childers and Marian Harkin.

"Political parties are nice neat packages, but Independents are a more difficult group for people to understand. I wouldn't have an awful lot in common with Lucinda Creighton and the Reform Alliance on social issues – I couldn't see us being compatible," Ms Murphy said.

Another consideration is the cost of forming a new party, as many of those involved would be forced to put their money where their mouth is.

It is clear the electorate is ready for a new political movement after being failed by the established party for decades.

But in-fighting and lack of progress among those discussing a new party will make voters just as apprehensive about pledging their support.

Sunday Independent

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