An electorate fatigued by years of unrelenting economic bad news and grinding austerity; disenchanted with the Government’s failure to tackle the failings of the political system and engage in meaningful reform; the lack of a coherent alternative from an Opposition that has, at its heart, a party still tainted by its role in the economic crash and still toxic for many; a surge in support for ‘Others’ manifesting itself in both opinion polls and local election results.
This is surely a most favourable environment for the launch of a new political party and after much speculation such a party was launched by a group of renegade Fine Gaelers led by former junior minister Lucinda Creighton. So, what is the prognosis for Renua?
For all of the debate generated by the economic crash and the failings of an out of date political system - and the reaction of the political establishment to both - it is remarkable that the issue which gave rise to the formation of this party is abortion, especially since the legislation in question was a long time coming, had broad public support, and if anything was seen as too conservative.
Insider believes this issue simply represented a convenient opportunity to make a break with FG, but Renua must be careful at the outset to avoid being branded as a niche party focused on social conservatism. What then is Renua’s raison d’être and how will it make its mark?
PDs or Lib Dems?
The obvious temptation is to compare Renua with the last new party to make a big impression in Ireland - the Progressive Democrats. There is some validity to this. Both were cases of a group of politicians from one of the big establishment parties breaking ranks, the backdrop being economic hardship and a frustration with a failure to tackle structural problems in a meaningful way. It is also probably fair to say that both parties - at least in economic policy - are on the right of the political spectrum.
Another comparison that springs to mind however is the emergence of a third force in British politics more than 30 years ago. Margaret Thatcher was in her first term in power and it was a rocky ride with mixed results and much controversy. The Labour Party - voted out of power after the ‘winter of discontent’ and dominated by internecine warfare in Opposition as it lurched dramatically to the left - had lost credibility with the electorate.
This led to a number of Labour moderates joining forces with the long-established but much diminished Liberal Party to offer a new alternative. Hence the emergence of the Liberal/SDP Alliance under ‘the two Davids’ - Steel and Owen - that eventually led to the creation of the Liberal Democrats in the late 1980s.
There are however, significant differences between the two scenarios. The PDs were focused on challenging the status quo and were willing to make some dramatic (or reckless, as some critics would argue ) policy proposals. The Liberal/SDP Alliance offered a moderate ‘third way’ to a significant group of voters who detested the harsh rhetoric and somewhat doctrinaire approach of both Thatcher and Labour, and the efforts of each to portray it as a stark choice between two extremes.
So which of those two scenarios best describes where Renua finds itself? If you focus on Renua’s most high-profile member and putative leader Lucinda Creighton, it is undoubtedly the PD example that would be the best fit. Indeed, if the British example above were to be cited, Dep Creighton would more likely be the Margaret Thatcher of the piece, and not the consensus builders of the Alliance.
Dep Creighton has long had a suspicion of the sort of consensus politics that has traditionally dominated in Ireland, in particular during the Bertie Ahern era. Her view would be that conventional wisdom needs to be challenged and that politicians should actively put forward, and seek to implement, proposals that will provoke strong reactions - both positive and negative. This, she feels, is the best way to make the structural reforms that are required to ensure both the economy and society thrive.
FF woes - an opening for a centrist approach?
On the other hand, there must be a temptation for some in Renua to look at the stagnant Fianna Fáil and wonder if there is an opening there for a new centrist party. According to most polls the Government parties have lost between one-third and 40 per cent of their support from 2011. On the Opposition benches, Sinn Féin is putting forward proposals that are too radical for many, while there is no single vision from the eclectic group of Independents. FF should be the obvious beneficiaries but the problem, ie, the party is still a ‘no-go zone’ in the eyes of many voters, and lacks credibility following its role in the economic crash.
The single most important segment of the electorate is that block of voters comprising around 40 per cent of the electorate that, until recently, mostly voted for FF. This is the group that very nearly elected Sean Gallagher to the presidency and the group that will decide if the referendum on same-sex marriage passes next month. Currently at election time these voters are spreading their preferences across several different parties (including FF itself ) and Independents.
Could a new party, with a policy platform somewhat similar to FF, seek to capitalise on this opening? Indeed Insider has occasionally wondered if we might see something akin to the Liberal/SDP Alliance emerging in Ireland, whereby a new political movement merges with FF to create a new party that does not have the FF baggage, while simultaneously having access to its well-established political machinery and activist base.
A new party - Is there really an appetite?
However, for all of the column inches and airtime taken up with discussions of the desire for a new party, Insider is not all convinced that there is such an insatiable demand for one.
Certainly there is great frustration at the failings of the established political parties, but this anger comes, not so much from the ‘policies of austerity’, as the sheer incompetence and cronyism on display from the Government for much of 2014. Insider feels though, that what people want is not so much a new party but rather for any party or parties - be they new or established - to show a degree of competence and vision.
The opening that presents itself for Renua then, is not a space in the market for a new party, but rather an opportunity to be the party which capitalises on that desire for competence and vision. That opportunity also presents itself for the existing parties, however Renua may have the advantage of not being tainted by baggage or recent history.
All of these musings are fine, but pointless if Dep Creighton and her colleagues do not come off the fence. All of the other parties and groupings are putting in place their plans for Election 2016, holding selection conventions, and setting out their stall on policies. From Renua, we are only getting vague statements about principles.
It is now almost two years since those TDs left FG and more than three months since they announced the formation of the new party. We are also less than a year from a general election, yet we still have no clear idea what sort of policy platform Renua will pursue, nor do we know much about the party’s potential candidate base.
There does seem to be an element of ‘Whatever you’re having yourself’ and for the party to become a sort of forum for all sorts of views to be put forward by its members. Insider accepts Dep Creighton’s remarks that the party whip system needs to be reformed but finds it difficult to take seriously any party that does not have a coherent policy platform.
Renua in Galway?
Insider has previously commented that if Renua is to make an impact, then Galway West is a constituency that ranks high on the list. We have seen in the past how the constituency took to the PDs and stuck with them through thick and thin. The demographics of the constituency are good for a niche party that positions itself on that side of the political spectrum.
Some of the parameters Insider cited earlier are very prevalent in Galway West – a lot of former FF voters looking for a home, currently two FG seats but people maybe not convinced by that party and willing to consider an alternative. In order to thrive locally though, the same hurdles must be crossed, namely, the party clearly identifying what it stands for and putting forward compelling candidates.
Right now, if you ask people about the chances of FG holding Brian Walsh’s seat in particular, they will tell you that, yes it is susceptible to a challenge – being very dependent on sceptical middle-class voters in the city and Oranmore – but currently he is likely to hold on as those voters have no obvious alternative. This sums up both Renua’s opportunity and challenge.
Insider overall is sceptical then but awaits developments with interest. With an election beckoning, the next few months will tell us all.