Sunday 17 December 2017

John Drennan: Jury is still out on whether Reform Alliance can fill the political party gap

RA conference was mixture of philosopher's optimism and a dose of reality from citizens, writes Political Editor John Drennan

John Drennan

John Drennan

Outside of births, marriages and christenings there is no more stressful an event in life than the setting up of a new political party – even if that new political party isn't a party. The Reform Alliance's Billy Timmins certainly felt like that as he stood outside a deserted RDS at 8am yesterday morning.

The chill appeared to epitomise the uncertain status of the Reform Alliance, for after the initial blaze of light that followed Lucinda Creighton's volcanic departure from Fine Gael, the skies have been darkening.

The polls, as we see today, are chilly, whilst the many enemies of the Alliance were triumphantly predicting the RDS would be a deserted political village or thronged with busloads of rosary waving pro-life nuns.

It all turned out rather differently, for you can hardly get a more positive affirmation than the declaration by Olivia O'Leary that in a country which does not "talk enough about politics" the conference had been "a very good exercise".

It had also been a rather more thronged affair than expected, as by 10am the previously nervous Timmins was purring about how "it's filling up nicely; there's a steady flow, just like a country christening".

The thousand or so who filled the RDS were mostly of a somewhat more up-market variant.

Instead, there was something of a PD hue surrounding an audience divided between those who were old enough to have attended the revivalist PD conferences of the Eighties and those who were young enough to have been barely born when Dessie O'Malley and Mary Harney charmed the political erogenous zones of the eternally squeezed middle.

The undoubted star of the event was Phillip Blond, the philosopher king of the British Tories and former senior adviser to David Cameron.

You do not get too many philosophers speaking at Irish party conferences, but the waves of applause that greeted Blond's political manifesto means that might change.

The hall almost rocked as Blond advocated giving electors the power "to recall TDs who have failed" and told the audience members "you have been so betrayed by our institutions" that the world has now entered "a post-democratic age".

The cheers rose even higher as Blond told the audience "a nasty corrupt cartel of politicians and developers" means there is "no way for middle class people to get ahead" because "wages won't deliver at the rate you pay tax".

New party or not there is no way you will ever go wrong in appealing to the self pity of the Irish voter and that was certainly the case here as Blond advocated the setting up of a new system to "empower the virtuous people" who don't "want to go into the murky world of politics".

Outside of the saints of the Reform Alliance, who stuck to their promise to stay on the sidelines, the habitues of the murky world of Leinster House – for the intriguing Troika of Mattie McGrath, Bill Tormey and Ronan Mullen – stayed well away from the momentum for ideas thing.

Of course, as is always the case where the citizens are allowed to have their say, it didn't entirely go to plan as a couple of Reform Alliance TDs were left blushing by the searing critiques of the evils of political dynasties.

This, however, was mild when compared to the impassioned audience member who called "on the members of the Oireachtas present to stand before the panel and apologise for their role in leaving Ireland in the hole we are in".

As the angry soul added, "we need a new party like a hole in the head" and asked the aforementioned politicians "not to stand with the national flag as a back-drop, it is an insult to those who sacrificed their lives", the celebratory mood subsided quite swiftly.

In contrast, a far happier note was struck by Blond, who claimed: "What I have seen today suggests the Reform Alliance has a real future as a party, the standard right-wing parties have failed, the Alliance could secure a large number of votes from the disillusioned and Independent votes."

The man behind the Tories' 'Big Society' concept wasn't even deterred by a warning about the eternally dreary nature of our political steeples, noting that "from Britain, the UKIP, France and Italy this has happened, so why not Ireland".

In fairness to our somewhat optimistic philosopher, yesterday it was clear the Reform Alliance does consist of something more than a popular front for the incorrigible pro-life gene in Irish politics.

The thousand-strong attendance on a rainy Saturday also certainly suggests there is, as Michael McDowell famously noted, "a market in the gap" for a new political party. As to whether the Reform Alliance can fill that gap; well that depends on whether they are real advocates of reform or, as their enemies claim, tea-drinking Leinster House dilettantes.

And the jury, for now, at least, continues to remain out on that.

Irish Independent

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