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Move to challenge status quo is to be welcomed


John Leahy, Lucinda Creighton and Eddie Hobbs at the launch of an as yet unnamed political party with the tagline #rebootireland

John Leahy, Lucinda Creighton and Eddie Hobbs at the launch of an as yet unnamed political party with the tagline #rebootireland

John Leahy, Lucinda Creighton and Eddie Hobbs at the launch of an as yet unnamed political party with the tagline #rebootireland

While I won't be joining the Reboot Ireland initiative, I wish them luck. Anything that challenges the stale cartel that is Ireland's political establishment is welcome.

The initial reaction from some is that it all feels very Fine Gael-y, if a little further right and a touch more socially conservative. But that analysis misses at least part of the point. The four principles listed on the Reboot Ireland website speak less about what needs to change, and more about how things might be done differently. The first three principles reference entrepreneurship and freedom of thought in one way or another - be it in indigenous industry, the public sector or the political system. And the fourth principle, which refers to a minimum lifestyle, also talks about the need for measurement of outcomes - again, about conducting the work of parliament, government and public service delivery differently.

I mentioned recently that the two main traits we seek in people we're looking to do important work are integrity and competence. Dessie O'Malley set up the PDs due in part to a lack of integrity in Fianna Fail -Charlie Haughey was out-and-out corrupt, though few accuse him of incompetence.

Perhaps Lucinda Creighton and others are setting up this new movement due to a lack of competence in this Government - a Government increasingly regarded as incompetent, though while capable of strokes, isn't corrupt. Perhaps this new movement is an attempt at a competent Fine Gael to O'Malley's honest Fianna Fail.

The divisive issue of social conservatism has been sidestepped, for now. It was declared at last Friday's launch that a free vote would exist on issues of social conscience. And it was very noticeable that not one member of the Reform Alliance, other than Lucinda Creighton, was at the top table for the press conference. Of the seven members of the Reform Alliance, six ended up out of Fine Gael not because of opposition to political skulduggery, but because of opposition to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. The genesis of this group has always made it difficult for them to convince people that their driving passion is political reform, and not social conservatism. The management of last Friday's press conference looked like a strong effort to break that link.

Even if this new party can escape the preconceptions on social conservatism, it, and indeed any other political movement that emerges this year, will have to contend with serious challenges, both cultural and structural.

Culturally, politics and politicians have become so toxic that virtually everything they do is viewed with cynicism and scepticism by the public. The last Edelman Trust Barometer, in January 2014, showed that public trust in government in Ireland is plummeting. From January 2013 to January 2014, it fell from 32pc to just 21pc. Of the 27 countries surveyed, we were fourth last. It's likely this year's score will be lower again, based on everything that happened in 2014.

This lack of trust is, sadly, entirely understandable. It also makes the job of TD less attractive, which makes finding good candidates for a new political party difficult. Sure who'd give up a good job, security and a relatively peaceful life to become one of those lying / delusional / self-serving / harangued / abusive / ineffectual eejits working unsocial hours, right?

Many political commentators share and amplify this jaded view of politicians and politics. In Glenties last year, one of the best political journalists in the country was standing on the street with four TDs - Catherine Murphy, Pearse Doherty, Lucinda Creighton and me. We were discussing the need for meaningful reform of the political system. The problem, he told us, was that nobody within politics was really trying to change the status quo.

Now say what you want about the four TDs in question - but it's pretty clear that we're all working hard to change the system. But so jaded has the consensus become that it can't be seen - a curse on all our houses.

The other set of challenges is structural. There's the money. Any new political party starts with zero state funding. Compare that to the groups they are competing with - Labour, for example, will receive about €17m in state funding during this Dail. Fianna Fail will get about €18m, while Fine Gael will enjoy state funding to the tune of €27m. Plus any new party will find it very difficult to raise money, due to the new guidelines on donations. The funding challenge is a bit like this: Imagine a start-up tech enterprise trying to compete with a huge, state-funded, mobile telephone company, with the added restriction of the start-up not being allowed raise funds.

There's the logistics. Starting a party, and running one, requires people to do a lot of different things. Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour, between them, have wages provided by the State for 40 additional staff. This is just for the running of their parties, with salaries up to €86k. For Fine Gael and Labour, these staff are in addition to ministerial advisors, and the entire apparatus of the State.

There's the Oireachtas. Existing parties with seven or more TDs have a platform - Leader's Questions, Committee seats, permission to speak on the Order of Business each Dail and Senate day. But these parties must exist prior to the previous election. So even if seven sitting TDs come together and form a new political party, they are denied the parliamentary platform the 'established' parties grant themselves. And the Oireachtas committee that can recommend changes to this… is made up only of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail TDs and Senators… no Independents, no Sinn Fein, and certainly no new party members, thank you very much.

For all of that, the cartel must be challenged - by this new party, and by others. Management consultant Eddie Molloy was asked the following question at a conference a few months back: How, with the Irish political status quo so solidly protected by the existing cartel, are we ever going to see any change? His reply was that it would require individual acts of leadership - from sitting TDs and Senators, and from the public more widely. What we saw last Friday was such an act.

Sunday Independent