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Can we rise above loving 'the Celtic Phoenix'?

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A walk in the park: Lucinda Creighton, TD for Dublin South East, with John Waters. Photo: David Conachy.

A walk in the park: Lucinda Creighton, TD for Dublin South East, with John Waters. Photo: David Conachy.

David Conachy

A walk in the park: Lucinda Creighton, TD for Dublin South East, with John Waters. Photo: David Conachy.

Lucinda Creighton has the air of belonging to Ireland as it is rather than as anyone thinks it ought to be. She can't easily be filed under isms or sorted into boxes. Claremorris, where she comes from, is one of those places often pointedly disposed of as a 'small town' in Mayo. But it's a town connected to many other such towns - and the countryside in which it is embedded - by a personality and a way of being that goes deeper than words. The sum of such places is the greater part of what we are.

The inhabitants of this republic of the mind are not easily boxed. It's not enough, for example, to ask just one question and let some kind of autofill programme finish out the profile. Nothing can be taken for granted, which is why the Dublin media are frequently befuddled and thwarted by this place. Anyone who goes there expecting to encounter something called 'conservatism' will become maddened in the process of discovering that, while such a force exists, it is rarely a simple phenomenon.

Lucinda Creighton has come, unexpectedly, to personify this complexity. Her stance on the abortion legislation last year thrust her forth as a contender, but in a complicated and somewhat confusing way. For one thing, she doesn't outwardly conform to conventional stereotypes of what is called 'conservatism'. She is young, Trinity-educated, progressive-sounding, smart and fashion-conscious. In the heated debate about the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill last year, she opted to put her career on the table alongside her rhetoric, taking the short walk to the opposition benches for the sake of her avowed principles. Her Dáil speech on the issue, in which she explained her stance and why it wasn't a Catholic thing, was one of the most impressive in that chamber for many years. With one mighty leap, our heroine was free - free to stand up to Enda and all his works and pomps. The problem was that abortion is something of an electoral cul de sac, a more or less neutralising factor in the face of broader questions. The emergence of a semi-formalised grouping known as the Reform Alliance created a frisson of speculation, but nothing coherent beyond the repudiation of Enda's double-dealing.

No matter what your stance, it was unlikely that the idea of a rump of pro-life ex-Fine Gaelers carried much promise as the answer to the country's problems, taken in the round. Rumours grew of some kind of broader-based grouping of forces, to include various dissenters past and present. Last January, a 'monster rally' was held, which far exceeded expectations, but afterwards the moment remained unseized. The guts of another year has passed. Last week, to complicate the picture further, the five-member alliance joined the Dáil's 'technical group' of assorted mavericks and oddballs.

Now, with talk, God help us, of a 'Celtic Phoenix', the moment of truth cannot be much further delayed. On the face of things, the current talk of a 'recovery' might seem to signal that the moment of opportunity for Lucinda Creighton and her putative new movement has definitively passed. She thinks differently, insisting that it is precisely in such conditions that a new kind of leadership is demanded. She believes that the Irish people are above being drawn into hallucinations of renewed prosperity, and seeks to appeal to our sense of enlightened self-interest. "I don't think," she says, "that the Irish people want another government to gamble with their future."

From time to time, it might have seemed that, for Lucinda Creighton herself, the subtexts of the stance she took in the summer of 2013 were somehow more vital than its headline content. In taking it, she came to notice as someone prepared to stand up to power and double-dealing, to make sacrifices for her principles in a manner noticeably at odds with the pragmatism of the times. Abortion was the instant issue, yes, but in much the way that the dance draws attention to the dancer more immediately than to its own logic.

She describes her post-FG state in a word: 'Freedom'. And this ironic understatement, finally, may be the key to understanding Lucinda's Mayo mojo, which may be defined by, more than by anything, an intense dislike of a particular neighbour who dissed her once too often. Interestingly, she never voluntarily breathes his name, only occasionally acidly referring to 'the Taoiseach'. There's always someone else in the room or the sentence to become the focus of her direct fire. Her descriptions of the undoubted humiliations she endured tend to be matter-of-fact, drained of surface anger. Yet, her studied avoidance of naming or addressing the central protagonist draws the attention even more than the most intense rant or a bitching session.

She believes that people continue to feel let down by the failure to pursue the opportunities for reform offered by the mood of crisis that pertained at the time of the last election. That moment was frittered away, she says, but another kind of moment remains to be seized: a moment of willingness to eschew short-term approaches and go deeper down.

But how realistic is such faith in our good judgment? Is it actually possible, after six years of austerity, to say to people: if we knuckle down for a while more, we can build a better society? Yes, she insists. She doesn't believe that people will settle for the mere temporary relief represented by the ending of austerity.

'Austerity has been very difficult, and there's no doubt that some people have been affected much more brutally than others, so there is a sense of unfairness, obviously, and that breeds discontent. But I think the moment we've reached means much more than that. The Celtic Tiger was a kind of a soulless era, and I think people have got much more back to basics. I see it where I live in Sandymount: far more community engagement, people working together. And I think that's the positive side of it, that people want to see a re-shaping of the country, to ensure we don't go back to a sort of boom-bust cycle - the property, the flashiness. I think people want to see something that's more real, more grounded, more sustainable - economically sustainable but also socially sustainable, to feel that they're part of a community and a society, and not just consumers.'

For a while now, it has seemed that whatever moment was manifesting itself was passing us by. But Lucinda doesn't believe so. "I don't think the opportunity has completely passed. This is a moment in Irish history that probably won't repeat itself for a long time to come. The damage that has been inflicted on Irish people, the damage that has been inflicted on families and communities, is still there. It hasn't been forgotten. We can talk up exchequer returns and property prices, but that reality remains. If you have a couple of hundred thousand young people living at the other side of the world who should be living in this country, that's a pretty stark reminder of where this state has failed."

So can we anticipate an imminent announcement? "All I know is that I'm committed to it, because I believe that there is a range of individuals, inside and outside the Oireachtas, who say they want change, to reform Irish politics. Now is the opportunity. It won't be there in five or ten years. So we have to get on with it. I don't just want to make up the numbers - I want to influence a new shape and direction for this country. And I'm prepared to do what's required to make that happen.'

Sunday Independent