It was a crisp Saturday morning in January 2014 when I joined almost 1,500 concerned citizens in the RDS for a “Monster Rally” organised by the Reform Alliance. The alliance was formed four months earlier by five former Fine Gael TDs; Lucinda Creighton, Terence Flanagan, Peter Mathews, Billy Timmins and Denis Naughten. Along with two former senators, Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy Eames, all had been expelled by Fine Gael; Naughten for opposing the downgrade of Roscommon Hospital in 2011, and the others in July 2013 for opposing the coalition government’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. It was the biggest mass expulsion of TD’s in the history of Irish politics and was only possible due to the unprecedented majority that the Fine Gael & Labour coalition enjoyed.
The rally was unquestionably a success with insightful contributions from Tom McGurk, David McWilliams, Eddie Molloy, Olivia O’Leary and several of the Reform Alliance members. Like the early meetings of the Progressive Democrats almost thirty years earlier, the problems at the heart of Irish politics were given a full airing, but unlike the P.D.s, there seemed to be a lack of consensus on the political direction that the alliance should follow. There was no question that there was an appetite for a new party built on a socially conservative platform, but for over a year nothing transpired. A huge opportunity had been squandered.
A full year later the intention of forming a new party was finally confirmed and a further two months went by before Renua was unveiled. Flanking Creighton at the launch were two unlikely figures, financial advisor and television presenter Eddie Hobbs and little known Offaly county councillor John Leahy. It soon became obvious that Matthews, Naughten & Healy Eames had opted out and decided to remain independent.
However, it wasn’t just capable people that Renua had lost along the way. The party seemed intent on denying its socially conservative roots in favour of a pro-business, flat tax agenda and indeed the party initially stated that it was not taking a position on abortion and would allow members a free vote.
Hobbs previous hostility to the public sector and a car-crash radio interview by Flanagan on launch day set a rocky course for the new party. The unveiling of Renua coincided with the Marriage Referendum campaign. Many looked to the new party for potential support for the “No” campaign, or for it to at least allow its representatives to have the freedom to campaign as they saw fit. It was well known that several members were against redefining marriage, but Renua followed the lead of the other parties and were invisible during the campaign.
The referendum coincided with a by-election in Carlow-Kilkenny where Renua’s political support was tested for the first time, with Fianna Fáil defector Patrick McKee flying the party colours. All of Renua’s energies were put into that by-election, but a disappointing result saw the party fail to even reach 10% of the vote. A questionable decision to bring Sunday Independent columnist John Drennan on board as Communications Director raised many eyebrows. Political cowardice and errant priorities had steered the party into something of a political no man’s land.
Less than a year later, Renua contested its first General Election. 26 candidates (including three outgoing TDs) stood on a platform of a flat tax rate and a three-strikes law which would require a mandatory life sentence on a third conviction for serious crimes. Again there was no mention of the party taking a pro-life position and abortion wasn’t mentioned in its 76 page manifesto.
The flat tax rate which was poorly explained and lacked the most simple of supports like an online ready-reckoner was criticised by other parties and helped the media portray Renua as being out of touch with the needs of low and medium earners.
Despite Creighton’s reasonable performances in the leaders’ debates, the election was nothing short of a disaster for Renua. Despite her high public profile Creighton lost a third of her votes while Timmins and Flanagan fared even worse. The party was wiped out, at a time when the electorate seemed to be deserting the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil axis in record numbers. The only small consolation was that with so many candidates, Renua achieved the 2% of the vote necessary to obtain taxpayer funding.
Within weeks of the election debacle Creighton had stepped down, Drennan was gone and Hobbs was nowhere to be seen. It was highly questionable whether Renua could go on. However, Leahy had become the new leader by September, and he quickly set about trying to re-establish Renua as an unapologetically pro-life party. The controversial flat tax proposal was replaced and Renua seemed to finally make progress to what many at that initial RDS rally had wanted, a voice for Irish conservatives.
Those who took part in July’s Rally For Life may have noticed Leahy and other Renua members in their conspicuous yellow t-shirts. If was as if the wheel had come full circle, but is it too late?
Those who have studied the history of Irish politics know full well how difficult it is for any new party to break through in a meaningful way. For impact and longevity, two key ingredients are needed; personalities that have a strong personal vote, and a proper national organisation. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have had both, which helped them survive the electoral disasters of 2011 and 2002. It is now highly questionable if Labour have the national organisation or enough young talent to re-emerge meaningfully from 2016’s electoral catastrophe.
Renua’s challenge is even greater.
Next summer’s referendum on the 8th Amendment may give the party an opportunity, but with so many established pro-life voices, the platform will be crowded. The party’s only real long-term hope is to attract candidates who are already experienced, have a high profile, or an established support base.
Recent opinion polls suggest a swing back to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil after the electorate’s brief flirtation with independents and the left. In such an environment, it’s hard to see where Renua can gain enough traction to survive.