Wednesday 17 July 2019

Is this the start of a new era or another false dawn?

Lucinda Creighton is the leading light of the Reform Alliance. Photo: David Conachy
Lucinda Creighton is the leading light of the Reform Alliance. Photo: David Conachy
John Downing

John Downing

Today's Reform Alliance rally could be a turning point in Irish politics or just a damp squib.

The hysteria surrounding the launch of the PDs might offer a clue. John Downing reports

Last time a major new political party launched, its sudden rise actually helped Enda Kenny get his first ever government job. This time around , if a political party does emerge from Lucinda Creighton's Reform Alliance, it will be vastly more complicated for the Taoiseach and Fine Gael.

Many at Leinster House believe the Reform Alliance are 'no Progressive Democrats' and Lucinda Creighton 'is no Mary Harney'. Today's 'monster rally' at the RDS in Dublin will tell a lot -- but if we hark back to the early PD days we already see the bar is set very high.

On February 13, 1986, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald announced a botched cabinet re-shuffle which continued a bitter row over the position of Labour's Barry Desmond. One of the less remarked features of the new line-up was Enda Kenny's appointment as junior education minister, his first grudging recognition by Garret after more than 10 years at Leinster House.

Des O'Malley's Progressive Democrats were just six weeks old at the time. But they were rampant, packing halls to rafters, with 25pc ratings on national opinion polls.

Mayo was one of the many places where local PD speculation was rife. Word was that they would poach an ex-Fine Gael dissident and take a seat in the following general election. That PD paranoia tipped the scales in Kenny's favour and got him one year in the junior ministerial ranks.

The Progressive Democrats' early rallies were an emotionally charged phenomenon, comparable to evangelical revivalist meetings in the US. They had originally talked of booking a room for a dozen people for their first meeting at the Marine Hotel in Sutton, Dublin, and gradually realised they would need a bigger space.

But on the night of January 8, 1986, 2,000 people converged on Sutton, causing traffic gridlock. At a meeting in Cork city on January 20, the crowds flowed from the Metropole Hotel on to the street as Fianna Fáil TD Pearse Wyse announced he was joining PD founders and fellow anti-Haughey-ites Des O'Malley and Mary Harney.

Three days later at another packed rally in Salthill, Galway, the PDs unveiled Connacht recruit Bobby Molloy -- another FF anti-Haughey-ite. The Castlebar-based Connaught Telegraph noted the attendance of two Mayo councillors and former FG members. These reports tipped the scales for Enda Kenny's eventual and belated promotion prospects.

The Progressive Democrats' story tells us just how excruciatingly hard it is for small political parties in Ireland. In fact, as time passes, we see the trajectory of their lifespan in a better context. We also still see the mark they have left on the Irish body politic.

The PDs share several characteristics with two other small new political parties of an earlier generation, Clann na Talmhan and Clann na Poblachta (see panel). All three parties set out to smash what they saw as a stagnant political order; all three spoke to big national issues perceived as neglected; all three lasted about 25 years, caught the public imagination and their principals held government office. All three eventually succumbed to internal and external pressures and saw their support slope back to the traditional parties.

Observers focusing on the Reform Alliance will make most comparison with the most recent of these, the Progressive Democrats. In 1986, they were focusing on issues which resonated deeply with a very disillusioned electorate. People lucky enough to have a job were paying almost 70pc tax on modest wages. There was high unemployment, huge levels of youth emigration, a state system perceived as interfering and inefficient, and emerging demands for social reform on issues like contraception and divorce.

The PDs were fuelled by widespread disenchantment with Charlie Haughey.

And for quite some time they spoke to those burning issues of the day.

The Reform Alliance grouping starts with seven Oireachtas members -- six of whom are Fine Gael dissidents out of the parliamentary party because they refused to back the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill last July. The seventh is Roscommon-South Leitrim TD Denis Naughten, who parted company with Fine Gael in summer 2011 after the Government broke written promises about the local hospital.

Lucinda Creighton is perceived as the leadership figure. The others are TDs Billy Timmins (Wicklow); Terrence Flanagan (Dublin North East); and Peter Matthews (Dublin South) along with senators Fidelma Healy Eames (Galway West) and Paul Bradford (Cork East), who is married to Creighton. They insist that they are not intent on forming a political party and the purpose of today's rally is to stimulate debate on reform. However, speculation and comparisons with parties past persist.

Yet, even if they did want to form a party, serious impediments lie ahead. There are serious doubts about their national 'pulling power' harking back to O'Malley, Molloy and Harney. There are doubts about how long they could sustain unity amid divergent opinions and strong personalities. There are doubts about fundraising in a new era of political oversight.

But even if these obstacles were to be overcome, there is huge doubt about the presence of enough public hunger around big issues seen as being blatantly neglected right now. The seven Reform Alliance principals speak vaguely about the need for 'political reform'. Yet they are perceived as coming about from dissatisfaction with law changes on moral issues.

At Leinster House each day, Enda Kenny loyalists will quickly ream off these and many other compelling reasons why 'the Reform Alliance are no PDs'.

But they must beware. Back in early 1986, when Dessie O'Malley and co were mobilising, Clann na Poblachta founder Sean MacBride was even more dismissive. "I don't think the PDs can be a major voice in Irish politics," MacBride said.

That is why we must reserve judgement at least until we see today's events and their immediate aftermath.

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