A video published by Gript on April 12th, interviewed independent TDs Mattie McGrath and Michael Collins on the idea of a new party that would put “Ireland first” and speak up for rural communities which have been left behind.
Undoubtedly there’s a public appetite in some quarters for a party that goes against the grain on many hot-button issues. A more sensible attitude to climate change and energy needs is largely lacking in the political marketplace.
Meanwhile, there’s a gaping hole when it comes to socially conservative parties, with a third of the electorate at the 2015 and 2018 referenda (on same-sex marriage and abortion) being ignored by the mainstream parties.
But even from the video, it appeared a new party was not necessarily in the offing. McGrath himself acknowledged they may not actually form a new party, and when he was pushed on a name, he was quick to downplay the relevance of having a name. By contrast, Collins seemed more enthusiastic about the need for a new party, but does he really mean a “political party” or simply the Rural Independent Group being more active in electoral contests.
In Irish politics, names and branding matter. The Irish psyche is not particularly wooed by the presidential style of doing politics (Irish fawning over the incumbent US president notwithstanding). In European countries with a parliamentary system, a party can be based around a popular leader with affiliated candidates elected on the coattails of the leader’s popularity. This has never really materialised in an Irish context. Although sometimes a leader could be seen as a strong selling point of a party, such as the Progressive Democrats’ adoption of the slogan “Dessie can do it”, that party was importantly made up of several well-established TDs from the mainstream parties. A TD needs to be elected mostly on their own hard work, or on the popularity of a party, but never the popularity of one person.
The Rural Party?
The idea of a new party, teased by McGrath and Collins (members of the Rural Independent Group in the Dáil) would face many significant challenges from day one. Each of the six Rural Independent Group TDs have been elected as independents, although some have a Fianna Fáil background like McGrath and Richard O’Donoghue. Jettisoning their independent status would lose them that special regard Irish people have for independents: the perception that they stand above party political interests and are only there to serve their constituents’ needs.
As independents, the Rural Independent Group is a technical group that bands together on some key issues but its members are ultimately there to serve their respective constituencies. Being well-regarded as stalwart local workers is what keeps these six TDs elected. Danny Healy-Rae’s dated Nokia phone ringing in the Dáil chamber can be mocked by metropolitan TDs from mainstream parties, but the fact he doesn’t switch off his phone is why he and his family are so popular in Kerry.
Forming a new party requires a new set of priorities and it requires sacrifice. So much more would be required from founding a political party than simply being a well-got constituency worker. A serious political party requires detailed policies with costings. Without this level of detail, policy proposals can be dismissed without consideration.
In addition to needing well-thought-out and novel policies, the hypothetical “Rural Party” could never hope to achieve any success if it was simply a collection of egos and personalities who’ve aligned together because they’re against the status quo but believe they can carry on as they have been doing hitherto. A standardised set of policies, branding, objectives, etc. are required for any political party worth its salt.
The party would also require democratic decisions to be binding – the existence of a national executive or committee which decides on key questions of the party, not a toothless rubber-stamp body. Those who disagree can’t simply walk away, they have to submit to decisions from their leader or majority decisions of a national executive. The parliamentary party of every mainstream political party has fierce disagreements, but people have to get with the programme; the Rural Party cannot be an exception to this. It’ll need a whip, who must be obeyed, otherwise, it’ll be a loose gang of independents that will eventually fall out with each other over something or other.
There’s also the question of competency. Do the current Rural Independent Group TDs have what we may call “leadership material”? People want substance, not slogans. Too often the Rural Independent Group offers denunciations and slogans which may mirror widespread anger, but can this really carry over into effective political leadership?
Renua and Aontú
In the past few years, we’ve seen two examples of new political parties which represented a somewhat more conservative tendency in Irish society. The first being Renua, and the second being Aontú.
Renua made several fatal mistakes, its name being a major one. What did it even mean? The thought process was apparently a pun on the word “Renew”, but also the Irish “Ré Nua” or “New Era”. Did that signal anything about its political message? Not particularly.
One advantage the party had was it was made up of a collection of sitting TDs and a senator, and soon some councillors. However, Terence Flanagan’s unfortunate radio meltdown gave a new meaning to the words “car crash interview” and probably left the impression that the TDs who joined Renua were the eejit wing of Fine Gael. This impression was seen when Maria Bailey in the aftermath of Swing-gate (2019) was asked if she’d now be joining Renua.
Renua also shied away from trying to court a conservative base in 2015/16. There was some wisdom in not overfocusing on social issues, but the party gained a reputation for obfuscation about its true political identity and opposition to the liberal agenda. This irritated conservatives and was perceived as dishonest by liberals. So Renua shot itself in both feet from day one.
The party understood it needed a big policy to distinguish itself from what else was on offer. This came in the form of the infamous flat tax of 23% income tax. Although it received some praise from economists, the policy was seen as too much of a departure from what most people were used to.
People instinctively believed this would see a fall-off in the annual tax take, which begged the question, where will we make the difference to sustain our current level of spending on public services? Renua’s answer that everyone keeping 77% of their income would stimulate economic growth and make up the difference seemed unpersuasive and based on a hoped-for result rather than anything concrete. Better not rock the boat, people thought.
People also saw the flat tax policy as being essentially pro-rich, and thus unfair and perpetuating inequality in Irish society. It was dismissed as “too right-wing for Donald Trump” and as a discredited ex-UKIP policy which even they found too unsavoury and consequently ditched.
Renua was correct that it needed a radical flagship policy. Perhaps the 23% flat tax was a good idea, but the party failed to go the whole hog in putting forth a truly different economic platform. Lucinda Creighton was and is a Europhile, so to expect Renua to push for a withdrawal from the Eurozone would be unrealistic, but the party should have demanded the serious application of the Growth and Stability Pact for the common currency. This pact is seldom followed by member states but is meant to require that no participating country would let their economies have a national debt above 60% of GDP or a budget deficit of more than 3% of GDP.
The Euro, Renua should have argued, must also drop being a fiat currency and instead be backed by a solid commodity like gold or silver. However, Renua’s failure to grapple with these thorny monetary issues ensured its flagship radical policy was misunderstood and dismissed as a selfish right-wing theory designed to benefit the super-wealthy.
In the case of Aontú, it was set up by Peadar Tóibín in 2019. Notably, nobody else joined him in the new political venture, not even Carol Nolan, his former colleague from Sinn Féin who suffered the same fate as he for his pro-life stance. Unlike Renua, which has objectively fallen flat on its face, Aontú still exists in the political space. But ask yourself, who apart from Peadar Tóibín do you associate with Aontú? There really is no one else, apart from three small-time councillors (one of whom is Tóibín’s sister) and two ex-SDLP defectors in the North.
Apart from being pro-life and conservative on social issues, what makes Aontú different from any other party? Think about it for you a while and maybe you’ll come up with something. They certainly have tried to get away from the image of being culture warriors, which is probably wise, but instead. they’ve turned towards being a party of solving particularist local issues. That’s all well and good, but every other party does this already, and they’re masters of this art. Plus, independent and mainstream party TDs can do a lot more for you than an unelected Aontú rep can.
Aontú’s test will be at the next general election. If they only return Peadar Tóibín to the Dáil in Meath West, people will begin to see Aontú as a one-man band and rightly so. And that isn’t going to produce success.
Successful new parties can seldom ever be organic organisations that are formed by activists who then begin to get previously unelected nobodies elected. The Greens are perhaps an exception to this. But in the current political climate, which is highly focused on parties, it is difficult for new parties to truly build themselves from the ground up.
When Direct Democracy Ireland was set up in the aftermath of the crash, it certainly attracted a lot of people to its initial launch – maybe 500. But nobody knew who the people behind it were. They were just random people like you or I. Politics requires politicians. And to really drive a political party forward there needs to be a leader who is “ministerial material”, with a support team of politicians of different stripes and expertise on various issues. And behind all this, you need experienced and professional political staff and managers, not amateurs or glorified constituency social workers (who, in the case of independents, are often family members without any political instinct).
While there may be an appetite for several of the policies or sentiments expressed by the Rural Independent Group TDs, there is no reason to think transforming this particular Dáil technical group into a Rural Party would see a recreation of the BBB’s success in the Netherlands. There is no sight of competent elected politicians who are currently members of mainstream parties coming together on a joint platform to form a genuinely new party that covers many political spaces and is run in a professional and efficient way (as the early PDs were). Because of this reality, the most likely output for this kind of angry anti-urbanite or pro-populism politics will remain the independent local do-ers.