Monday 20 May 2019

Independents need to put egos aside and seize the chance to control next Dail

Lucinda Creighton. Photo Ray Ryan
Lucinda Creighton. Photo Ray Ryan
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

The most basic skill required of a politician is an ability to count. You must have the numbers to get elected, survive and secure a working majority. Do current numbers stack up for a new political party?

The gap in the electoral market for a new entrant is much more favourable now than when Des O'Malley established the Progressive Democrats in December 1985. The PDs first general election was in 1987, securing 8.4pc of the votes and gaining 14 TDs, despite Fianna Fail retaining 48.8pc and Fine Gael 30pc. The circumstances of the 1980s are very similar to 2015 - a prolonged recession, overarching national debt, high unemployment, high taxation and austerity - all culminating in disillusionment with the incumbent Fitzgerald/Spring coalition.

Based on the most recent opinion polls, opportunities for a new party are enormous. Fine Gael's market share has declined from 36pc (in the 2011 election) to 22pc; Labour has slipped from 19pc to 8pc; Fianna Fail remains unchanged at 17-18pc.

Thus 25pc of voters have drifted away from the Government parties over the lifetime of this Dail, even before any new entity has been established. Meanwhile, the latest Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll indicates 54pc 'Yes' to the question: Do you support establishing a new political party? Disenchantment with the old political order is so deep-rooted, because while names and faces change, exasperation explodes from broken promises, lack of reform and persistent cronyism.

This breeds radicalism amongst voters. They're almost prepared to overlook Sinn Fein's ambivalence to violence and criminality.

There's a massive misconception that the 30pc support for the broad brand of 'Independents' is equivalent to approval for hard, left-wing socialism. The results of local elections last May don't support this unreality. Some 225 Independent councillors were elected out of 949 public representatives. As few as 30 of these can be termed extreme socialists - 14 for People Before Profit; one for the Workers' Party; one for United Left Alliance and one for Sinn Fein.

On closer examination, the greatest numbers of Independent councillors are former Fianna Fail (35 plus), former Fine Gael (17) and others actively identified with local incumbent independent TDs, such as Michael Lowry and Mattie McGrath in Tipperary, Tom Pringle in Donegal and John Halligan in Waterford. All analysis leads to the singular conclusion that a new cohesive centre party, comprised of Independent TDs, can garner 20pc market share of the next Dail.

Converting this moment of electoral opportunity into representation at Cabinet will require considerable political and organisational skill. The biggest difference between now and the 1985-87 period is the minimal scope for voluntary private donations for independents, while Fine Gael has had its coffers boosted by €4.8m annually from the taxpayer. The regulatory regime and zero state subsidies for new parties screw any newcomer of finance, while feather-bedding previous election victors with State cash. It amounts to systemic sustenance for 'insiders'.

Increasingly our politics has become presidential in style, with the personality of the party leader central to party identity. The biggest initial issue is: Who is to lead a new entity? The face on nationwide posters and voice at the microphone has to have 'X Factor' appeal, the agility of a 'Strictly Come Dancing' winner and survival traits of a 'Jungle' celebrity. His or her personality has to resonate with town and country, young and old, female and male, haves and have-nots, while connecting with sincere empathy and communicating with a genuine passion, conviction and vision. So far, putative front runners come up short of such expectations.

Lucinda Creighton's positives are that she is a young mother in her 30s, residing in the capital and with a Mayo background. With appropriate supports, training and experience she may emerge as a formidable leader. She has one fundamental drawback. Her issue with Fine Gael over abortion identifies her as anti-libertarian. This Catholic Church-based ethos has an ageing, nationwide constituency, but it's not part of a new urban Ireland or linked to younger voters. The same-sex marriage referendum is likely to draw Creighton into the 'No' campaign next year, cementing her traditionalist conservative credentials. Brand-wise, a replica PD Nua label will be a magnet for Thatcherism smears. These factors may represent cul-de-sac politics.

Shane Ross, meanwhile, must shake off considerable personal paraphernalia. His origins are via the elitist route of the Senate university panel. His background is English public school, with a Trinity College education, an authentically posh accent and a qualification in stockbroking, all combining to provoke future demonisation as part of an aristocratic nobility, lacking the common touch of ordinary workers and families. This doesn't detract from his talents as an effective communicator, inquisitor and long-standing critic of bankers and regulators. He is perhaps too Dublin-centric for national opinion.

Michael McDowell is a formidable top politico with an industrial-sized brain, practised eloquence, profound initiator of ideas and experienced parliamentary tactician and strategist. But he's 63-years-old and has had an extensive track record as a TD and minister. His sustained support for Bertie Ahern from 1999 onwards makes him a prime target of culpability for our abysmal absence of adequate regulation. Under his leadership, a new party would be a magnet for revisiting the past.

Other potential leaders such as Stephen Donnelly, Finian McGrath, Roisin Shortall, John Halligan, Noel Grealish or Thomas Pringle don't readily spring to mind as a modern-day Dessie O'Malley or Dick Spring. They also lack full ministerial experience. Have no doubt, a new party of the centre will be formed next year. It will lack - at least initially - a charismatic leader. Therefore, it must compensate with a set of core values and principles that unite around localised community connections, reasonable taxation policies, public service reform and a genuinely fresh new style of politics. But firstly, it's time for the preening prima donnas to submerge their individual egos. It stands in the way of uniting in the greater common cause of political pragmatism. There's never been a greater gaping chance for a new arrival to capture public sentiment.

Irish Independent

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