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Race is on between Shane Ross and Lucinda Creighton

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Lucinda Creighton

Lucinda Creighton

Lucinda Creighton

Lucinda Creighton

Shane Ross

Shane Ross

Roisin Shortall

Roisin Shortall

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Lucinda Creighton

'Is she doing it? Is she announcing the new party tonight?" asked one elegant lady as she arrived slightly late.

Last Thursday evening, the cold winter night bit hard on Dawson Street in the centre of Dublin.

The splendid Royal Irish Academy was the location for a very important gathering.

Leader of the Reform Alliance Lucinda Creighton had invited 150 supporters from her area to the event.

Inside, she busily pressed the flesh, welcoming those who had taken the time out to attend, before setting out her stall for a new political movement in Ireland to over 100 supporters.

While the formidable Creighton stopped short of formally announcing her new party, she made it clear she is not far from doing so, with expectation that such a move is likely by February.

She told those who came: "The time for talking is over," and that Ireland desperately needs a new politics.

After almost a year of people wondering whether she would or wouldn't make the crucial step, Creighton has given her clearest indication that at least one new party will be on offer come the next election.

"Any new political movement needs a clear charter on what they stand for and I'm working on that at present," she told the assembled gathering in answering questions from broadcaster Tom McGurk.

But in her most telling intervention of the night, Creighton appeared to reject the idea of a new party which would be around for several generations.

Instead, she said what Ireland needs is a party with a clear eye on reform, which could be done over a 10-year period, before it folds up its tent.

Like a starburst shining brightly for a short time before fading away, her comments will draw inevitable comparisons to the Progressive Democrats, founded by Des O'Malley, which had a huge impact on Irish politics in its 24-year lifetime.

Creighton's comments also seek to address the deep public resentment toward this Government and the wider political system.

She has been a vocal and strong critic of the Government she was once a member of since her expulsion from Fine Gael in the summer of 2013.

She also, during her address, railed against the current multi-seat constituency political structure. She told her audience this constitutes a "race to the bottom" of who can fill potholes, which is not the job of national politicians.

However, Creighton's meeting comes in the wake of an opinion poll last weekend, commissioned by friends and supporters of Shane Ross, which showed the Dublin-South Independent TD is the public's favourite to lead a new political party.

Ross, too, clearly has aspirations to be a leader of a new movement, but both he and Creighton are playing a cautious game at the moment, for fear of moving too quickly and running out of steam before the election.

The Red C poll showed that 22pc of people wanted Ross to lead the party while 18pc expressed a preference for Creighton.

Former Labour minister Roisin Shortall was the next best placed on 13pc.

Both Ross and Creighton have said they want to address the public desire for a new party, but both have been less clear as to what form a new party would take, who would be involved, or what would it stand for.

This weekend, however, my sense of it is that Ross has so far lined up about half a dozen of the Independent TDs for an alliance, rather than a party. This alliance will seek to agree an agenda to support four or five main items, but on all matters, members would be free to vote as they see fit, rather than be subjected to a party whip.

For her part, Creighton and the Reform Alliance have struggled to shake off the conservative anti-abortion image given the manner in which the vast majority of them left Fine Gael. Only Denis Naughten was expelled for another reason, having opposed the Government's decision to downgrade Roscommon Hospital's accident and emergency department.

Naughten, a highly regarded politician, has also muddied the waters somewhat by ruling out running at the next election with a new party. He has clearly stated he will run as an Independent.

Given that right-wing image of the Reform Alliance - whose members include Creighton, Naughten, Peter Mathews, Billy Timmins, Terence Flanagan and Senators Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy-Eames - Creighton's attractability to other Independents is somewhat limited.

It is known, for example, that Shortall, too, has examined the idea of a new party or alliance, and is open to working with Ross and other centrist Independents such as Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and John Halligan.

But she, like some of the others, see the hard-right, anti-abortion "baggage" of the Reform Alliance as a bridge too far.

One example of this was a failure of many of the Independents to support a Reform Alliance amendment to the Finance Bill in the Dail last Wednesday, which they saw would have benefited the rich primarily.

"Normally the Independents would have at least supported their right to have the vote, but such was the animosity toward it, many of us stayed rooted to our seats. That was significant in the context of all this new party stuff," said one Technical Group member.

According to the Ross Red C poll, the Sunday Independent columnist is more attractive to voters as a leader across the social classes than Creighton, who is understandably most popular among the urban middle and upper classes.

But the re-emergence of talk of a new party has sparked an outbreak of panic among the Government backbenches, who clearly see their futures disappearing before their very eyes with each passing day.

"If she does that, we lose 5pc overnight. It's no wonder why guys are freaking out," said one senior Fine Gael TD.

As Taoiseach Enda Kenny becomes ever more unpopular after a year of calamity, and the prospect of a Creighton-led party eating into the decreasing Fine Gael vote even further, questions are now openly being asked about dumping the leader.

Such talk fuels attention on the two main contenders for the leadership, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, who are said to be closely monitoring events. But Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is also increasingly being spoken of as a possible successor to Kenny.

The game is certainly afoot.

Sunday Independent