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Time runs out for a 'reform party'

FOR a while now, the electorate has been teased with whispers of a new political movement; one that would harness the public anger at the country's economic demise and channel it into sweeping reforms.

Michael McDowell noted the gap in the market for a new political movement at a private meeting last summer, stirring rumours that the former Progressive Democrats leader might be ready for a comeback.

Nothing came of it.

As the country teetered on the brink of a bailout that the Government told us would never happen, there were rumours of merger talks between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Jim Glennon, a rugby pundit and former Fianna Fail TD who himself stepped down in "frustration" with the system, was a broker in these secret talks, along with a retired Fine Gael parliamentarian, whom he won't name.

"We tried to encourage a group of 30 or so disaffected TDs last November/December to get their act together and join hands across the benches," he said.

The aim was to channel the disaffection in both parties into a new political party. By early December, Glennon had held between 12 and 15 one-to-one meetings with TDs from both parties. Preliminary enquiries were "quite positive", he said. "There was an age cohort there that had an awful lot in common with each other although they were facing each other across the chambers."

The indignant Greens' post-bailout call for a January election, snow, Christmas and more snow meant that the proposed merger "never got off the starting block".

Enter David McWilliams, the economist, broadcaster and author, who was rumoured to be fronting a new political movement. He caught the zeitgeist for change, touring the country with his one- man show. He wrote about the need for change in his columns; and by Christmas, he was exploring the possibility, along with a group of other individuals from a variety of backgrounds -- some of them prominent business people, whom he declines to name.

Shane Ross, the fiercely independent senator and journalist, was in the mix. Potential candidates were vetted. Could they put together "a group of individuals under a broad banner tied under five or six broad principles" in time for the election? The answer was no, according to McWilliams. The group was working on the basis of a late March election. Their plans were scuppered when the date was brought forward to February. "I think it would have been possible if we had more time," said McWilliams this weekend.

Two weeks ago, Ross declared as an independent candidate for Dublin South. Days later, Paul Somerville, a markets analyst and prominent critic of government fiscal policy, declared as an independent for Dublin South East. McWilliams -- after much speculation -- said last week that he would make a "brutal politician" when it came to the day-to-day constituency stuff and wouldn't run.

McWilliams wasn't alone. John Cronin, a 35-year-old director in a consultancy firm in the financial services centre, had his own vision for a political movement. It was to be called 'Change Ireland' and would campaign for political reform, starting with the calibre of politicians. As with McWilliams, campaign finances and time worked against him.

For many, these are opportunities lost. The hunger for a new political movement has never been greater. A Red C opinion poll for Paddy Power bookmakers earlier this month found that 61 per cent of those polled said a new party was necessary to ensure a new direction in politics; 66 per cent said they trusted politicians less. But showtime starts on Tuesday with a round-up of the usual party political suspects lining out for Election 2011: Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour, the Greens and Sinn Fein, the United Left Alliance, which is fielding 18 candidates, and a gaping void that a reforming political movement of the style envisaged by McWilliams could have filled.

Desire for change is evident in the number of independent candidates who have stepped up to fill this political void. More than 40 independents have registered so far. They come in all hues, including a new breed inspired by our dire circumstances; the 'mad-as-hell' citizen candidate intent on reform and who will likely become a hallmark of Election 2011.

Several -- such as David McCarthy, a political consultant standing in Cork South Central -- have been part of the tic-tacking in recent weeks to form a new national political movement and are now

forging ahead on their own. He says there was simply not enough time to form a political party but as a "frustrated citizen" who is also self-employed and a father, he is standing anyway. "It's about doing it right as opposed to doing it quickly," he said. "That has frightened off some people. But in the meantime, citizens still need to stand up and be counted."

McCarthy, a behind-the-scenes veteran who worked on Kathy Sinnott's campaign for Europe, has separately founded his own independent umbrella group, Independent Alliance for Change, to "get some credibility on the doorsteps" and to share expertise among candidates. It's attracting new candidates by the day. There are four in Cork and one in Donegal with more coming on board in the west of Ireland.

"The core principle of reform is what binds us all. Outside of that, people might be on the left, or on the right," he said. "People are clamouring for change but I don't know do they want a new political party. This is about getting in during a time of flux, when the opportunity is there to make change."

Stephen Donnelly, 35, standing as an independent in Wicklow, exemplifies the new breed. As he strode down Bray's Main Street last week in his wool coat and suit, it's evident that he is new to pressing the flesh. He stops passers-by politely, with a friendly smile, sometimes forgetting to hand over one of his leaflets. He blushes when complimented. "I'm from Greystones. I'm married and have two children," goes his patter, before delivering his message: economic and political reform. A novice in political matters, he was driven to distraction by the mess the country is in. He hopes to deploy his education at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he was trained on how to negotiate with the IMF. He supports renegotiating our bank debt and setting up a National Reconstruction Bank to get money to business.

Another is Eamon Walsh in Galway, 43-year-old father, businessman and campaigner for disabilities, who is running in "disgust" and "frustration" at the way politicians have behaved.

"This is not about independentsacting in a clientelist fashion. This is not about parish pump politics. Myself and others popp ing uparound the country have expertise and business experience. The aim is to form a technical grouping based around equity, fairness and reforming the political system," he said. He is funding his campaign with personal savings, a loan and is trying to raise donations.

Eric Doyle Higgins, businessman and ex-Fianna Failer standing in Kildare North, describes himself on his Facebook page as: "Husband, father, brother, son-in-law, Irish, mad at what has happened to us."

Their message is potent. At the last election in 2007, independents took five seats. Pundits reckon they could now take 20. Opinion polls have put independents at 10-12 per cent. Seven independent TDs is all it takes to form a "technical group" with speaking rights: 20 could possibly hold the balance of power.

Anger and disgust at the existing political system is all very well. But can a disparate group of candidates united only on a common cause of economic and political reform really make a difference?

Election analyst Sean Donnelly reckons that, depending on Labour's performance, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that independents, as a united group, could hold the balance of power. But a final shake-up of independents in the Dail will no doubt include the stalwarts such as Finian McGrath in Dublin and Michael Lowry and the newly ex-Fianna Fail TD, Mattie McGrath, in Tipperary constituencies.

They will not sit easily with Shane Ross, a strong contender in the volatile Dublin South constituency, and who is being held up as a figurehead for independent reformists across the country.

Thomas Clare, an independent in Louth, appeared to have jumped the gun when he claimed a "centre-right" grouping of 20 independent TDs, to include Ross, hoped to form a government with Fine Gael. Ross denied that he would be part of any group aiming to support Fine Gael in the next Dail.

However, he has declared that he plans to "join with (like-minded independents) to change the entire political system to end the culture of cronyism, to break the circle of powerful people ruling our country and to liberate those citizens who are suffering high taxes, negative equity, unemployment and cuts in children's allowances as a result of their policies".

At this stage, forging alliances will most likely wait until after an election. Independents will work to get themselves in and then the trading will begin, according to Donnelly.

There are those who believe that, given the unprecedented levels of public anger at our politicians, an opportunity for change has gone. "It was left too late, the election was called too soon and people were caught on the hop," said one man who would have considered standing had McWilliams' movement gotten off the ground.

But McWilliams believes this election marks the beginning, not the end, of something new. "There is one thing worse than not doing anything in this country and that is doing it badly," he said at the weekend. "If you involve yourself in real politics, the ground war needs to be very well planned . . . If you're going to win it, you need to bring lots of people in . . . I think there is an opportunity to build something here."

Sunday Independent