WEEKEND BIG READ: Does Ireland need a new political party?




No new entity has challenged the political hegemony for long without imploding, so it is hard to see where an alternative to Civil War politics will come from, writes Michael Clifford

IS there anybody out there looking for something different in the political arena? Are you among the multitudes thirsting for a new party in which to invest your mandate? We are told the time has never been better for a new political party to establish itself.

This week’s results in the Meath East by-election were the latest straw in the wind.

The performance of Direct Democracy Ireland candidate Ben Gilroy exceeded all expectations. He came in fourth with 1,568 first preference votes, beating Labour into fifth.

The result reinforces opinion polls which show an increasing cohort of voters drifting from the main entities. Jim Glennon, a former TD and astute political pundit, made such an observation last week on Newstalk FM. “The time has never been better for a new party to start up,” he said.

On RTÉ radio, John Reynolds, the showbiz and nightclub impresario, offered a view drawn from the world of business.

“The last general election I didn’t vote — I don’t know the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael,” he told Marian Finucane. “Ireland needs heroes. We have heroes in many areas but none in politics.”

Opinion polls repeatedly point to a disillusioned electorate. The latest Red C opinion poll put independents and others at 20%, while Millward Brown’s last outing had that cohort at 24%. This level of disenchantment with the main parties would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The reasons for disillusionment are self-evident. The country is at a low ebb following over a decade of political mismanagement up to the collapse of the economy in 2008. Fine Gael and Labour pledged things would be different under their stewardship. We were promised no less than a “democratic revolution”.

They might as well have promised a rose garden. Little has changed. The economic compass remains locked on the course set by Fianna Fáil, and it is often argued that there is no alternative. Even if that were taken as given, it still doesn’t excuse the inertia in rebooting the political system and, by extension, the political culture.

As far as the Coalition is concerned, hoarding power is far more important than setting out a vision for the future in which their short-term grip on the levers might be loosened. Whatever about our economic ills, a complete failure to change the political culture has been nothing short of a kick in the teeth to legions of voters.

So, it would seem, the answer is a new party. Well, as was shown by Gilroy last week, we already have a new party. It was just waiting to make a splash. Direct Democracy Ireland was launched in a Dublin hotel last November on a platform of consultative democracy. This largely involves widespread consultation ahead of making any laws.

While the DDI initiative is undoubtedly noble, it’s difficult to see this type of a party sustaining and expanding, with all due respect to Gilroy and his campaign.

Perhaps citizens are waiting for something a bit more exciting. Perhaps what’s missing are the heroes Reynolds referenced, a little celebrity wattage, a few fresh ideas, maybe an inspiring speaker, or a hard nosed business head. Maybe. Or maybe the public hasn’t a clue what it wants.

THE HISTORY BOYS

What kind of party might sate the thirst? The last new party to be successful over the long term in this State was Fianna Fáil, formed in 1927. Only two new entities had a real impact on the political system over the last 60 or so years.

Clann Na Poblachta grew out of disenchantment on the fringes of politics in the 1940s but, without its iconic leader, it may have gone nowhere. Seán McBride was a fabled son of the Sean Bean Bhocht.

When he formed the party in 1946, he was answering the call of republicans and young urban voters for something different than the existing big two. Sound familiar? He also attracted a young Noel Browne to his standard, and while Nr Browne was a man of considerable substance, he could have given McBride a run for his money in the “difficult” stakes. The party enjoyed one term in government in the inter-party coalition, but its constituent parts began to rip and tear thereafter, leading to its dissolution by the end of the 1950s.

The other star shooting through the political firmament was the Progressive Democrats, founded in 1985. Again, it owed much of its birth to the presence of a major figure of the times, Des O’Malley. He was recognised as the man who stood up to Charlie Haughey, and much of his misgivings about Haughey turned out to be prescient. They also appealed to a constituency disenchanted by Civil War politics.

The party standard included liberal social policies, bigging up free markets, and its one legacy — low personal taxation. By the time the PDs met their end in 2008, all they appeared to stand for was low tax. While the policy was enlightening in the 1980s, its elevation to an article of faith among all parties was arguably a major component in driving the economy onto the rocks.

The common thread between Fianna Fáil, Clann Na Poblachta, and the PDs was the presence of a major figure at the head of the organisation. In the current media environment, such a figure is probably now more necessary than ever before for any party looking for entry to the top table.

POLITICAL SPECTRUM

What do voters want? A party of the right or the left, or just something fresh breaking down through the middle? Most of the talk about a new party has so far appeared to settle on something that would be regarded as right wing in the traditional sense.

Those who have advocated change tend to reference a need to elevate business, and cut taxes, along with the usual stuff about jailing bankers and telling Angela Merkel to take a hike.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are a raggle-taggle of independents, which, ordinarily, might have provided the rump of a new party. However, that strain of politics is most susceptible to The Split. The United Left Alliance no longer appears as cohesive as it once was. Figures such as Mick Wallace and Ming Flanagan surfed into the Dáil on a wave of righteousness, but the tide is receding on their high-falutin’ rhetoric.

Joe Higgins has been the standard-bearer of socialism for a while, but his appeal has most likely hit a ceiling. If the collapse of capitalism in all its gore, as seen in the last few years, can’t rally numbers to the standard of socialism, then it’s difficult to see what will.

Roisín Shortall hinted in a recent interview that something could be moving in the long grass on the left.

“That is a possibility for the future and I think that a lot of other people in the Dáil that are not aligned, and I think there are people in existing parties, that would like to see a new kind of politics,” she told KFM in Kildare.

“But, certainly, there is an appetite there for a new type of party.”

Maybe Shortall is a leader in waiting. However, anybody coming from the left’s leftfield would have to provide a fresh platform of ideas, along with a winning smile.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are a few heads who murmur about stepping up. The businessman Declan Ganley is often mentioned in dispatches. He has already run for office, in the 2009 European elections, and he frequently hints at a willingness to be persuaded to serve.

The big beast of the right, Michael McDowell, hasn’t been as coy as Ganley. Writing in the Sunday Independent last month, on the back of the Millward Brown poll, he sounded like a rejected, needy lover, begging the public to beg him to come back.

“There is no substitute for competent, professional politics practised by persons with the understanding, experience and judgement necessary to carry out the vocation of representative politics in a manner that commands public confidence and trust,” he wrote. “If there is to be a new party and a new beginning for post-crisis Ireland, the participants must have these qualities in abundance and must prove themselves to be patriots with staying power.”

Who could he have in mind? Of course there is always the possibility of a new party of the centre. Except that’s a crowded house. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour currently reside there, with Sinn Féin sulking outside the door. Is there room for another? Before the last general election, the group that went by the brand Democracy Now boasted candidates from across the spectrum, figures such as Shane Ross, Eamon Dunphy, Catherine Murphy, and Fintan O’Toole.

But what would they have done differently? How, for instance, would O’Toole’s politics have reconciled with Ross’s under the same banner? It’s all very well to decry the current occupants of Leinster House, but unless you’re offering something radical, what else is there? Media profile alone, or even the ability to articulate and formulate fresh ideas, isn’t enough. Ask George Lee.

You have to follow through, and it’s a long time since anybody has had the right ideas, the perseverance, fortitude, and support to manage that. Such a paucity of impact is due, many would contend, to the design of the system. And without the co-operation of the main parties, the system isn’t going to change anytime soon.

CANDIDATES AND MONEY

Democracy Now was an example of a party that might garner seats based on the profile of their candidates. Most of those involved were either politicians of some standing or public figures in the media.

Could such an entity ever manage in power? There would inevitably be a huge issue over egos, as there would with any entity top-heavy with high-profile individuals.

Candidate selection for a new party would be an issue. Gathering in serving politicians would be a bonus, but too many and a new party begins to look same old, same old. Back in the 1980s, the PDs managed to overcome that perception by identifying with an anti-Haughey brigade. Who could serve as the big, bad wolf today? Candidates without celebrity wattage may have to familiarise themselves with the energy-sapping, grubby nature of localism. Failing to do so would invite failure, but complying with the existing culture would signal redundancy of purpose.

Money would also be a problem. Currently, the State funds existing parties to the tune of over €10m per annum. This money largely comes from two sources, based on a party’s share of the national vote and the leader’s allowance, which is calculated on the number of seats a party has in the Dáil.

Taking on that level of power would be difficult. Deep pockets of a few individuals would not be enough, as the laws on funding provide for constraints to individual donations. It may be possible to garner serious funding — as US President Barack Obama did in 2008 — through social networking, but that would need the type of rallying figure mentioned earlier.

CHANGE

How much change could a new party bring about? The 2011 general election, the “democratic revolution”, demonstrated how little things change. Any new right-wing entity would be little more than an adjunct to Fine Gael. Anything on the left would serve a similar purpose at the other end of the spectrum.

In the modern era, there are precious few examples of how a new leader or party brought about change to a country. The only two outstanding examples in 35 years are Margaret Thatcher and Hugo Chávez. Is there somebody out there matching the description of either individual? So far, the only individuals making noises about a new way sound like they’re having a punt, rather than committing to a long-term project, based on a specific platform.

So don’t hold your breath. There is a thirst for something different, and good luck to anybody brave enough to take up the cudgels. But it’s a long hard road and it’s also a long shot that any change will be brought about by a new party.

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