While we desperately need more diversity in Irish politics, Eddie Hobbs’ decision to leave Renua may mean that the party is over, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell
On a balmy June 2009 evening, the great and the good of the Progressive Democrats got together to wake the party, which was being wound up after a quarter of a century.
In front of an assembled crowd, which included many of the party’s leading figures, such as Mary Harney, Bobby Molly, Michael McDowell, and Liz O’Donnell, founder and first leader Des O’Malley was scathing in his criticism of modern politics in Ireland.
“In Ireland, you now have two middle of the road, inoffensive, whatever you’re having yourself, catch-all parties,” he said, “and I don’t think Ireland is particularly well served by having two middle-of-the-road parties.”
In the course of his remarks, he alluded to the fact that, in 2009, the Progressive Democrats or another small political party could not be formed because of new party funding rules.
He was speaking in the context of Declan Ganley’s Libertas movement, which was causing a lot of noise at the time, saying only a party backed by a rich man could survive.
“The only possibility of the formation of a new political party now is the one we saw very recently, and that is the formation of a political party by a very rich man and I think that is wrong,” he said.
With the news this week that celebrity financial guru Eddie Hobbs has left Renua in the wake of its disastrous general election, the party’s future hangs in the balance.
Hobbs’ departure follows that of founding leader Lucinda Creighton, who has left politics since losing her seat in February.
On his announcement, Hobbs said that Renua’s bid to reposition itself as a liberal democrat party will depend on “how much Rome is left” in it.
He said he had achieved his objective of helping Renua to move away from its association with conservative Catholic policies towards becoming a liberal organisation.
However, he indicated that that process was not yet complete.
“Whether it can [become a liberal democrat party] now depends on a) the next leadership and b) how much Rome is left in Renua,” he said.
The reasons for Renua’s wipe-out at the election may have been largely self-imposed, as many have argued, but its struggles highlight the daunting task anyone who would seek to try and establish a new party in Irish politics.
The Renua experience was a fascinating one.
The country, having been ravaged by the worst recession in living memory, came captivated by the notion of new political movements in response to the failure of the Fianna Fáil-dominated establishment.
Fine Gael and Labour were handed the reigns in 2011, only to leave the country abjectly disillusioned by their stewardship of the economy.
Founded by Fine Gae l rebels Lucinda Creighton, Terence Flanagan, and Billy Timmins after they voted against the last government on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill in 2013, Renua came along at a time of great crisis in Irish politics.
Having been booted out of Fine Gael, the rebels, along with Denis Naughten, ex-TD Peter Mathews, and senators Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy Eames, formed the Reform Alliance. This new body, while not a party, was seized upon as the potential vehicle for change which would rock the system.
It seemed to have the required ingredients for success. Creighton was undoubtedly the focal point, but along with seasoned and well-respected colleagues such as Timmins and Naughten, the alliance had substance to it. The looming shadow of former Progressive Democrat leader and Tánaiste Michael McDowell over the alliance added spice to the mix.
“From that moment on, the question on much of the media’s lips was whether we were going to form a new political party,” said Creighton, in her resignation speech earlier this year.
“That speculation reached fever pitch when in January of 2014, we held what the Sunday Independent dubbed our ‘Monster Meeting’ in the RDS.”
Just then, Naughten put a fly in the ointment, saying that, should a party be formed, he would not be part of it.
This was a setback, but Creighton and co continued on form what would become Renua in early 2015.
But aside from their image difficulties, the new party was beset by logistical, administrative, and financial hurdles, all of which combined to undermine their ability to compete.
In terms of the financial hurdles, Fine Gael kept the State funding given for each of the seven who had left the party, robbing the alliance, and later Renua, of much- needed resources to aid them in the tricky few months.
Secondly, a series of administrative delays meant they could not open a bank account into which donations could be lodged, which further impeded their general election challenge.
It is understood that Creighton and Bradford were forced to invest their own personal monies in order to keep the fragile Renua ship alive.
But they were up against it and, as the polls showed it, they were never able to compete.
Going from a position where they were sure their incumbent members were likely to hold their seat to one where Creighton was beginning to look vulnerable under a fierce attack from Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell, the Renua goose looked cooked from early on.
Creighton has also gone on to blame what she called a campaign by Independent News and Media against her for one of the reasons she lost her seat.
Ultimately, though, when the ballot boxes were opened on February 27, all three sitting Renua TDs lost their seats and no other Renua candidate succeeded in being elected to the Dáil.
This was even at a time when the shared Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael vote fell below 50% of the total vote for the first time in our country’s history.
Was it a case that Renua simply was the revolution nobody wanted and does it have a future?
Despite the loss of Creighton, Timmins, and Flanagan, Renua will get more than €1.2m in state funding over the next five years, provided it continues as a political party.
This is because it secured more than 2% of the national vote in the general election, even though it did not manage to elect a single deputy to the Dáil. The funding will continue until the next election. John Leahy, a councillor and Renua’s Offaly candidate, confirmed the party would receive €250,000 a year in exchequer funding over the lifetime of the 32nd Dail.
Leahy, now the de facto leader of Renua, has a big consideration to make given they now have some form of a lifeline financially.
While Renua had been the trailblazers, another new party did contest the general election and did succeed in winning three seats.
The Social Democrats — with its three co-leaders, Catherine Murphy, Stephen Donnelly, and Róisín Shortall — now fly the flag in the Dáil for the so-called new politics.
Battling many of the same hurdles around state funding that Renua faced, the future of the Soc Dems is no less uncertain than Renua’s.
The party is struggling for relevance in a noisy 32nd Dail and does not have the machinery or resources of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Fein, or even the reduced Labour Party.
In total, €13.4m was paid in state funding to political parties and Independents based on their level of support in the Dáil.
So therefore bigger parties get more funding, while smaller parties get less.
A further quirk in the system is that Independent members of the Dáil each essentially get paid a leader’s allowance, making it even harder for smaller parties to compete and survive.
This is part of the reason why Independents have become so numerous in recent years. It is easier to work the system working alone and maybe in an alliance then it is to go through all the hassle of setting up a new party.
I, for one, would like to see Renua continue, as diversity in political thinking is welcome, given how restrictive the Irish system has been.
But we, as a society, must ask ourselves whether we benefit from effectively making it impossible for new political voices from being heard. At a time when public confidence in politics is low, surely we should be doing the reverse.
But the apparent end of Renua as we knew it, makes me ponder — what now for the new party?
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