GUEST COLUMNIST: We need reform but post-bailout are Lucinda and Co ready to party?

If media exposure equalled political success then surely Lucinda Creighton would be fast-tracked to the office of the Taoiseach by now.

I’ve seen and heard more of the former junior minister this week than I’d expect to hear from an established party leader in the thick of a general election campaign.

Without doubt an articulate and talented communicator, she’s been telling us what’s wrong with our political system, how it might be fixed, and all the while getting none too subtle digs at Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

She is the public face of the Reform Alliance (RA). The reason for the exposure is the news that the RA is holding what it describes as a “Reform Conference” in the RDS later this month. The group describes the event as “a national conversation on Ireland’s future”.

Translated into newspaper headlines that became a “Daniel O’Connell-style monster-meeting”. Yet the image that came to my mind is more of a Daniel O’Donnell middle-of the-road type gathering. In the post Christmas sugar rush daze I see the RA having all the appeal of a box of dolly mixtures, pleasant, varied, easy enough to digest, but ultimately unimpressive.

They are an interesting bunch to find thrown together, six politicians — four TDs and two senators who ended up on the same boat, as it were, due to a set of circumstances where they lost the party whip on a matter of conscience, following the vote on abortion legislation earlier in the summer. The seventh, Denis Naughten, had previously lost the Fine Gael whip over the Roscommon Hospital controversy.

It’s worth noting that opinion polls at the time of the abortion vote made it clear that the level of angst over the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill portrayed in Leinster House, was considerably out of step with the general population of “middle grounders” who believed something had to be done on this issue which politicians had avoided for decades.

As it progressed Lucinda managed to trap herself in a corner when it came to the Dáil vote and incredibly, in this writer’s view, walked out on a very promising ministerial career.

What she has in common with the affable Wicklow TD Billy Timmins is that they both dislike Enda Kenny, a lot, as does Lucinda’s husband Senator Paul Bradford. I just wonder is this a sound enough reason for a new political movement?

A third member of the group, Peter Mathews, may be looking with some amusement at the current media obsession with the RA. He was an unknown prior to the 2011 general election, and thanks to media coverage, primarily appearances on the Tonight with Vincent Browne programme on TV3, managed to win a seat in the liberal constituency of Dublin South.

Mathews, a champion talker, is not known for his listening skills and in Leinster House, which has seen its fair share of talkers, is already legendary for his verbosity and inability to take the hint that it is now time to give the floor over to someone else.

Galway senator Fidelma Healy Eames, is a bit of a controversy magnet and a politician who could be described as a tad erratic.

Terence Flanagan, a TD since 2007, is a lower profile member of the group, while Denis Naughten has made it clear he has no interest in being part of a new political party and intends running as an independent in the next general election.

It must make for interesting meetings with such a diverse small group, especially when decisions are being made about who should be doing media appearances.

On the fringes of that mix is former Progressive Democrat leader Michael McDowell, a former constituency rival of Lucinda’s who is taking a bit of a Lanigan’s ball approach to the RA, but doubtless enjoying all the speculation that he intends resurrecting his political career.

There is irony here that a man, undoubtedly an intellectually gifted one, who was a key part of the Fianna Fáil/PD coalition, and who spent a substantial period of time in Government, is now talking about the need for reformed politics in Ireland. A little late, eh Michael?

The RA have no official leader but there can be no doubt but that former junior minister for European affairs Lucinda Creighton is seen as their de facto leader.

She has told us a lot in recent days about integrity and honesty and how we need more transparency in public life. The Irish people deserve politicians who do what they say they will do prior to getting into office. The RA website says that radical political reform is at the heart of their agenda.

This is motherhood and apple pie of politics, but what does it all add up to? Lucinda Creighton insisted on a number of occasions this week that the group had not discussed becoming a political party, which seems quite incredible. Clearly the RDS event is an exercise in trying to see what level of interest is out there, and how many Leinster House colleagues, such as independents Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly, might decide to turn up and broaden the base of the group.

The media, desperately looking for something new and exciting politically, has got so carried away about the RA that you’d think it had the potential of the Arab Spring.

It’s somewhat understandable, after the tedium of bank bailouts, bust economics and bank guarantees of recent years, that there’s huge dollops of wishful thinking in expecting the group to deliver on such expectations.

Setting up a political party, especially a successful one, would take a huge amount of energy, commitment, time and money. Just look at how Declan Ganley keeps dipping his toe in the political water, getting a load of publicity, and then going off and drying that toe with a towel having not, yet again, committed to anything.

The current funding system favours the established parties and they like to keep it that way, regardless of whether it is fair, and particularly if it makes it harder on any new competition.

IT’S the timing of this that’s the ultimate problem for me. You’d have to put money on a new political movement/party emerging at the beginning of our financial woes. The rather incredible thing is that we’ve come through a bailout, and billions of euros being taken painfully out of our economy, without that happening. A new political movement would have been plausible and possibly successful around the 2011 general election. But now, when we’re post bailout?

The aims of the Reform Alliance are admirable, without doubt we have a system that needs reform. But somewhat strangely the Irish people, while they would claim to want major changes, don’t appear to have too much of an appetite right now for a new party.

Perhaps they’ll just end up being a right pain in the neck for Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fine Gael on a few tricky issues. Maybe that would end up satisfying them too.


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