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Reform Alliance are not the next Progressive Democrats (for me at least)

The conference from the Reform Alliance later this month should be interesting to watch. I might even call in to it. While Lucinda Creighton did insist on Prime Time yesterday that it isn’t a political party, it certainly seems to be heading that way, with a date of September mentioned. If Stephen Donnelly joins them, my Wicklow homeland would become a stronghold for them. I’ve been asked more than once by friends and family if I’d consider joining them. There’s really barely a hope of that.

It’s not just that I’m enjoying my current activity in Fine Gael. If a party emerged that was closer to my ideals, and had reasonable prospects of being viable, I’d give them a fair hearing. This new group doesn’t seem likely to be either. When I spoke in favour of dissolution at the last conference of the Progressive Democrats, among other things, I said that if we were to continue, we could inhibit the development of our ideas in another political force. The Reform Alliance is not what I had in mind.

Let’s jump back to the 1980s, to the events that led to the formation of the PDs. Des O’Malley first lost the Fianna Fáil whip in 1984 because he was willing to consider political solutions in the New Ireland Forum Report other than a united Ireland (all of which gave much more power to the Irish government than the later agreements). He was then expelled from Fianna Fáil in February 1985 after he stood by the republic in the debate on the Family Planning Bill, arguing against that party’s tactical opposition to modest liberalisation of contraception laws. While an Independent TD, O’Malley led the charge against Minister for Transport Jim Mitchell’s ridiculous notion that it should be illegal to sell a place ticket lower than Aer Lingus, paving the way for cheap flights and Ryanair. Mary Harney lost the Fianna Fáil whip in November 1985 after she voted in favour of the Anglo–Irish Agreement. She and O’Malley were joined in December 1985 at the launch of the new party by Michael McDowell, a former chair of Dublin South-East Fine Gael, who was unsatisfied with the Fine Gael/Labour management of the economy. As well as realism on the national question, moderate personal liberalism and an economic focus on lower taxation rather than government control, a large impetus for the strength of the party was opposition to the politics of Charlie Haughey.

Yes, we became stagnant in our later years; by 2007, the IRA had decommissioned, McGuinness and Paisley were laughing together, the leader of the Labour Party was pledging significant tax decreases, and the personal freedom questions of the 1980s seemed to be settled. We’d lost that constant reforming edge.

Walter Lacey said yesterday on Prime Time that this could resemble the start of the Progressive Democrats. To an extent, of course, I have to defer to him there; he was there, I wasn’t. But I remain sceptical, and I can’t see any of my closest friends from the PDs interested in them either. I think it a good thing that they have reached out to the wider public as they have effectively lost their local constituency organisations. But as a group they remain identified with the single issue of abortion. That Denis Naughten had lost the party whip much earlier because of support for his local hospital is forgotten even by many politically involved. While many have issue with the use of the whip in politics, and principle in politics apart from party is respected, the issues are relevant. Des O’Malley is remembered fondly; Alice Glenn much less so.

Their response to the upcoming legislation from Alan Shatter, the Children and Family Relationships Bill will further shape their position and active membership. Before the 2011 election, Lucinda stated her opposition to marriage between gay couples on the grounds of its connection with procreation. Quite recently, Fidelma Healy-Eames wrote in the Sunday Business Post about the remaking of society under this government. That this is a volte face from her position when discussing civil partnership in 2010, as blogged by Donal O’Keeffe, gives the impression they’ve set out to consolidate the social conservative vote.

Don’t expect social conservatism to be a formal policy, they’ll emphasise free votes, which could provide a sort of justification for Stephen Donnelly, who could sign on to their support of political reform. But political reform is quite a nebulous concept. We’ve had some political reform under this government, some unnoticed, some unpopular. Two political reforms rejected in referendums. And systems can always be reformed in some fashion, are in need of scrutiny to be sure they work as they should, but it tells little about broader political positioning. So little comfort there for me.

Will it be viable? If it does become a party, the aim will be to win enough seats to be a consideration for government formation. That needn’t take that many; the PDs first entered government in 1989 with six seats, and then in 1997 with just four. It’s too early to tell. The first opinion polls won’t be a guide. In February 1986, the polls showed the PDs at 25%, ahead of Fine Gael at 23%, and far ahead of the impressive 12% achieved in the 1989 general election.

While I watch with interest, if it does become the party I fear it might, however, I would far rather see the current two parties back in power than a Fine Gael–led coalition with the Reform Alliance.

Two side notes: Interesting now that Lucinda named Des O’Malley, along with John Bruton and Chris Patten, as the politicians she most admired, in The Week in Politics Guide to the 31st Dáil.

And it seems an odd choice that the Reform Alliance logo resembles the Fianna Fáil logo in Fine Gael colours.

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