Time for a new political party?

by David Farrell (June 23 2010)

A letter in today’s Irish Times calls for the creation of a new political party:

Madam, – With all the recent musings and mutterings from various media sources about the possible establishment in Ireland of a new political party, may I add my voice of consent to the chorus and suggest that what is needed is a truly liberal party which would provide a real alternative to the social democratic Labour Party and the centre-right conservatism of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, now indistinguishable from each other?

The liberal tradition, with its emphasis on the inviolable dignity of the human person (including the unborn), the defence of the uniqueness of the individual, freedom, rights, responsibilities, self-determination, equality of opportunity and minimal governmental interference/intervention has much to commend it, if articulated cogently, convincingly and passionately.

Nietzsche was surely right to view liberal democracy as the offspring of philosophy (still sadly not taught in our secondary schools) and Christianity (which is much in need of rejuvenation and reorientation). Liberal politics, founded on classical ethics and rooted in transcendent reality, has potentially mass existential appeal and could do this State some real service. – Yours, etc,
STEPHEN J COSTELLO, PhD

Combined with recent articles by Vincent Browne and Fintan O’Toole, who call for a new force on the political left, this does raise an issue that is at least worth considering.

Personally, I’m not persuaded. Previous episodes — most recently the PDs — were not exactly roaring successes. And the cross-national evidence does not stack up too well either: for the most part, the picture is that new parties come…. and go. I still think that the best route is to get the existing parties to buy in to serious policy and institutional reform.

What do others think?

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23 thoughts on “Time for a new political party?

  1. All these calls for a new party is getting annoying. Why dont these people go set one up? I dont get the author of the letter considers FF and FG centre-right. Are they asking for a new centrist party? or a far-right party?

  2. The Sindo (http://www.independent.ie/national-news/ff-and-fg-dissidents-planning-new-party-2228106.html) may have been flying a kite, but it is unlikely there is smoke without some fire.

    I have argued on this board that significant liberal-centrist, pragmatic elements exist in both FF and FG (even if they would be loth to describe themeselves in this manner) and that an opportunity now exists to combine these elements in a new political force.

    The irony is that the more speculation there is about this possible development the more those contemplating it might be spooked and the existing party hierarchies will move to crush any exploration of the potential.

    That said, both “catch-all” parties are facing a resurgent Labour Party, which, with careful candidate selection and some vote-management, seems on course to surpass the high water mark of the Spring tide. As things stand, it seems unlikely that FF (and its gene-pool add-ons) will fall much below 60 with FG struggling to reach the mid 60s. The economic situation is far more serious than it was in the 1980s and an FG/Lab combo (if it could be sensibly assembled) would be far more damaging now – and I think many people realise this.

    An FF/Lab combo would go the same route as the attempted Lab/LD link-up contemplated in the UK last May – nowhere. An FF/FG combo (similar to the CDU-CSU/SDP link-up in Germany from 2005-2009) is a possibility, but unlikely.

    And so we are back to 40 liberal-centrists each from FF and FG forming a credible, reforming government. Remember Sean Lemass’s 1961-1965 minority government is generally regarded as one of the most effective in the history of the state.

    But whisper it, as the horses might bolt.

  3. There are two questions a new party needs to ask itself: Whose interest will it put first, and whose last? These questions tend to blow the handwringing “if only we had a party that care about the ordinary people” crowd out of the water.
    The reality is that public sector workers have the Labour party, the farmers and business have FG and FF, and those reliant on welfare have SF. Who does not have a voice?
    Nationalist anti-immigrant social conservatives, and secular low-tax social liberals. If anything, there is room for two small niche parties. The problem is that our electoral system punishes parties that cannot corral those votes into specific geographical areas.

    • I feel your pain Jason.

      One of the things I like about Fine Gaels changes to the constitution is applying the list system. Which would mean we could have a 5 seater Dublin constituency which could get us a low tax, pro-privatisation and anti-nanny state candidate.

      • Don,

        I thought they’d abandoned that?

        We need a national 20-30 seat constituency, because even regional lists will still result in a geographical bias, and we need some small parties. The problem is that STV treats two parties that get 5% differently, depending upon how other party voters feel about them.

  4. If there’s to be anew party, it won’t be because of a series of letters to the papers from people who are unsatisfied with the choice before them at the last election, it will be because of significant numbers of party members being unsatisfied with their own parties. At least that’s going by how the PDs were formed. There have in the past two years been the odd group like Amhrán Nua or the Liberals that aimed to establish themselves as new parties, but without the prior experience in politics that’s particularly crucial in a system like ours, they didn’t get off the ground.

  5. @William,

    I agree. Any new political force has to emerge from a critical mass of the existing stock of TDs. As things stand, many younger FF TDs with ministerial ambitions can look forward only to a struggle to retain their seats and, for those successful, a period in opposition. Most of the FG TDs who participated in the recent heave are likely to be passed over when the gooodies are handed out among FG and a much larger Labour Party representation.

    There is evidence of demand for a new force and it would attract popular support and individual and commercial sponsorship. “There is a time in the affairs of men…etc.”

  6. But what would this party actually stand for that’s different from FF/FG? Who wants to join a new party just to advance the ministerial ambitions of younger FF/FG deputies?

  7. There is an issue that if civil war politics is finally coming to end – yes please – there must be a major realignment of Irish politics similar to what happened at the 1918 election. It would seem the first stage in this is the decimation of Fianna Fáil at the coming election. If Fianna Fáil gets only 30 seats – it means there will be about 40 new TDs from various parties and it is too depressing to believe they will all turn out to the same as lot of wasters who are TDs now (and I don’t accept the view that most of them are honest or hard working).

    The worrying thing is that while Fine Gael have a policy on everything they have absolutely nothing to say about changing the mindset about decisions are made in Ireland (nor do any other party as it happens).

    For example, if Fine Gael really want to change Ireland then the easiest way is to commit on day one to extend the FOI to every single corner of government and make FOI requests free for the first year and then a token price after. The cost of providing that information will pay for itself many times over in changing the mentality of those who take decisions on our behalf and making their decisions more cost effective.

    Knowing they will be identified and held accountable for those decisions, and who they meet when making them and allow whisper in their ear, will reform Irish public society quicker than any KPMG consultants report ever will. Those who moan it will impede decision making as no one will want to be blamed – well tough that’s exactly what’s been wrong so far. If decisions are made on a sound basis no one has anything to fear.

    So a smaller Fianna Fáil, a not quite so large rural Fine Gael, a larger more urban Labour, a slightly larger urban Sinn Fein (in government with Fine Gael if the numbers add up that way) and maybe a Green or SWP or two will cause a far better realignment than any new party would.

    However, the risk is that for all the bluster Labour don’t actually stand for anything. So those expecting Labour to puruse an agenda of change will be as disappointed as those who thought Richard Bruton (or anyone else) is the solution to whatever issues there are with Enda Kenny?

  8. “Civil war politics” is a myth. The division ended in 1937. Fine Gael werent even around at the time of war. This is a bogus lie made up by Labour.

  9. @Jason O’Mahony and Desmond FitzGerald,

    You both make valid points. I was focusing on the mechanics of establishing in pretty short order a significant political re-alignment around a liberal-centrist core. If we ignore the basic political desire to secure and exercise power, we will remain in fairy-land. But it is equally important to ensure that this power is exercised in the public interest and this is where the various institutional and precedural reforms continuously discussed on this board come into play. Chief among these is the focus on FoI mentioned by Desmond and spelled out by Donal O’Brolchain in a previous post.

    FG’s “New Politics” contains a reasonably well-worked out set of proposals in this area (if one ignores the Seanad abolition and list system bolt-ons designed to bolster the leader’s machismo), which, I suspect, would not be anathema to many in FF if they were allowed to express a view. Labour, on the other hand, has decided to eschew these detailed changes that could be implemented reasonably easily and would have a major impact and is focused on a major constitutional reform programme that fails to address the pressing problems.

  10. With regard to the “mechanics” I should also have mentioned that a considerable amount of “infrastructure” is required to elect a TD. The time and resources required to build up this infrastructure is probably the biggest barrier to new TDs and parties. The extent to which this infrastructure is in an individual TD’s hand or at the disposal of the party is debatable – and, obviously, will vary by constituency and across TDs. But it should be possible for a critical mass of TDs in both FF and FG to seize control of a significant amount of this infrastructure that they could leverage rapidly to establish an electoral presence.

  11. The problem with the calls for a new different party is that those making these calls all end up wanting a different party to one another. All parties are implicit coalitions, the larger ones more so than niche parties. The other problem is that much of what Vincent Browne and others are calling for is a new party that has rather ill (or vaguely) defined goals and almost nothing in detail about how those goals would be achieved. The politics of marching and chanting for “equality” or “fairness” doesn’t do anything to bring those things about, and for the most part they are seeking not to change the minds of the electorate so they will vote for their policies but to simply win the support of the electorate at the ballot box under the guise of newness before implementing policies they never enunciated at the election time. And frankly that’s part of what got us into this mess in the first place.

    I’ve argued before that a reformed Seanad with regional open list elections is the place to get non-geographically based politics into the national discourse.

  12. Reviewing Stephen O’Byrne’s book about the PDs, the late Prof John Kelly (observed that “Ireland’s political and official rulers have largely behaved like a crew of maintenance engineers, just keeping a lot of old British structures and plant ticking over” Sunday Tribune 19 October 1986

    We need to focus on the mechanisms of government, even if that means changes to those aspects of the constitution which specify the form of government and how it works. This is the detail of how things work. It is not usually highlit in party manifestoes or the publicity that goes into winning elections.

    Whether a new party can act as a catalyst for such work remains to be seen. On being asked about the Vatican after converting to Catholicism, Ronald Knox, said that “ he did not mind being in the barque of Peter, provided he did not have to go near the machinery.”

    The usual stuff of politics here makes us well aware of who those who want to steer the barque and some of their ports they want to bring us to. But is the machine capable of being steered in the right directions and are the governors able to navigate?

    With Eddie Molloy’s recent articles on the Department of Finance
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/0408/1224267886259.html
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/0409/1224267974183.html
    and the Minister of Finance’s announcement of an external review of the Department of Finance (which I cannot find on the Oireachtas web-cast service or on the Department of Finance web-site), we are now beginning to lift the lid on the “machinery” in ways that the recent OECD report On Public Service Management and the Government response did not.

    As Ivor Kenny put it “How do we construct a state that provides the people with the power of adapting to the changes that constantly descend upon it?”

    It now seems that European influences are driving towards better management of the public finances. The maintenance engineers have clearly failed to keep plant ticking over. Neither have they recognised the need to invest in completely new plant and learn from others who have done so. This is but an extension of the influence of the EU which has been a major factor in raising standards here in all kinds of ways (eg. equality of treatment of people, removal of the marriage ban in the civil service, drinking water, food production)

    It is now clear that we need far more know-how in how our government uses the power that we delegate to it to provide for the common good

    What we need in this Republic is a completely new way of governing ourselves with more checks and balances on how power is acquired, exercised, controlled and lost. We need to limit the scope for excess by the powerful – whether they have power by position (elected or appointed) or from influence eg. money.

    IMO, we have two elements already ie. a written constitution and a proportional electoral system. Freedom of Information (FoI) has been nobbled (see my earlier posting https://politicalreform.ie/category/topic/corruption-and-accountability/).

    In a recent paper, Dr. Niamh Hardiman (http://www.ssisi.ie/Hardiman26-11-09.pdf) pointed out that “The main concern expressed about the electoral system is that it does not supply us with people who are skilled in specific policy areas.”

    We considered this issue in 1986 and wrote A Design for Democracy which sets out basic argument for a new mechanism of governing ourselves
    http://193.120.95.144/politics/design-for-democracy.pdf

    This was part of our thinking about the mechanisms of government during the last crisis here in the 1980s.

    A short form is in Need Government Fail? published in Business and Finance in 1987
    http://193.120.95.144/politics/Donal%20O'Brolchain/Need%20Government%20Fail%20Business&Finance%2021May1987.pdf

    For another take, I appealed to imagination in Ireland’s Second Republic? A view from the Future – published in 1987
    http://193.120.95.144/politics/Donal%20O'Brolchain/Ireland's%20Second%20Republic%20Seirbhís%20Phoiblí%201987%20Vol%208%202.pdf ((It still rankles that the editor of Seirbhís Phoiblí removed references I made to Citizens’ Initiative from that piece, without asking me or letting me know!)

    As I pointed out in an earlier posting (https://politicalreform.ie/2010/05/19/electoral-reform-is-not-a-panacea-but-it-will-have-effects/) “In 1998, we looked at the report of the Constitution Review Group (chaired by Dr. T. K. Whitaker) and the first two reports of the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution (then chaired by Brian Lenihan, now Minister for Finance)
    Re. The Whitaker report, we wrote that “The elegance of its writing and the clarity of it presentation cannot disguise the fact that the Whitaker Report is a deeply conservative document, at least insofar as it deals with the institutions of Government”
    http://193.120.95.144/politics/Donal%20O%27Brolchain/Institutional%20Reform%20%20Social%20Policy%20in%20Ireland%201998.pdf

    From what I have read, this is not yet the kind of material on which a new party will focus.

  13. @Donal O’B,

    Your focus on the “mechanics of governance” is necessary, but equally necessary is some consideration of how the existing and nascent political forces may be aligned to deliver the required change in the mechanics of governance. There is no shortage of debate about the latter but it appears that the political classes have not been adequately engaged – and, ultimately, for good or ill, it is they who must pick up the baton.

    We will have to accept that any exploration of a re-alignment of existing politcial forces that might deliver this change in the mechanics of governance will have to conducted below the public radar – and probably clandestinely. However, in a public forum, it may serve some purpose to demonstrate that the rationale and objectives of a realignment are sound and that the means exist.

    The big issues of this age – the liberty of the individual versus the growing powers of the state ostensibly concerned with “security”, the role of the state and citizens, either individually or collectively, in the demand for, and provision of public services, the extent to which the state should police the behaviour of business in a mixed economy, the response to the global shift in economic power and to climate change, etc – need to be, and, in most countries, are being resolved in the centre ground of politics.

    They will not be resolved by political competition between two “catch-all” parties that have overlapping coverage of most economic and social strata and by occasional association with a left of centre strand that neither has, nor ever will have, broad popular support.

    A re-alignment of the existing politcial forces is required. If not now, when?

    • The PDs were meant to change the system but as they were drawn from within that system there wasn’t a hope in hell they would change anything and it turns out they facilitiated a decade of corrupt rule which allied with their noecon politics has nearly bankrupted the country and will lead to a decade of mass unemployment. This crisis began in 2007 and the most optimistic commentators don’t see unemployment starting to fall until 2014!

      The idea of a new political party is pointless if it is drawn from the same cesspool from which politicans are currently drawn.

      There should be a campaign at the next election to only vote for first time candidates – every constituency will have first timers from all parties and none so pick the newby from your party of choice if you have to but then give your preferences to the old timers or better still, don’t and just stop at the new candidates.

      Could an Oireachtas of rookie TDs & Senators really be any worse?

      It is simply not credible that any of today’s TDs/Senators/MEPs/Councillors are capable of providing the solutions Ireland needs. Fine Gael can’t even bring itself to make its own reps publish receipts for their expenses and we’re expected to believe Fine Gael is going to’transform’ goverance in Ireland?

      Fianna Fáil created the mess – again. Fine Gael and Labour will just not be as corrupt but will retain the same structure of goverance – so when FF are back in office they can carry on where they left off.

      We see the evidence of change being strangled at birth everywhere around us – the church, business, the professions. Have any of them reformed how they operate despite the revelations of the last few years and their collective collusion, with a large chunk of the Irish public it must be said, in allowing decades of child abuse, handicapped people being abused, young mothers being abused, tax evasion, interference in due process when laws are being made etc.

      Change doesn’t have a hope in a country like Ireland, whose goverance framework is rotten to the core and long past the point of rescue.

      A new political party is useless until the actual people in the Dáil are themselves replaced and that can only happen when the Irish voter starts to use their brain when they vote by making the link between the reason they are jobless/negative equity/no pension/commuter hell and the candidate they vote for.

      • @Desmond Fitz

        I find myself agreeing with much of what you say. If a new political party is to be formed from the current ‘cesspool’ of politicans it will be the same old story. I find your final conclusions pretty depressing though. As a young man in my mid-20’s who does not want to live in another country it does not offer much hope for the future…

        I certainly think there is a major need for change in politics in this country and I know many people in my age group are completely disillusioned with how our Republic is currently run. I realise it is our desision when it comes to the polls and I was one who helped elect the current shower but to me the current opposition are not much of an alternative!

        What we need is politicans who are willing to tackle the unions and bring about the public sector reform that is so badly needed. That bring in a culture of accountability. That act in the national interest and not just in local interests.

        I apologise if this is a bit of rant. I do not normally post on any boards or even have much of an interest in politics for that matter. This article got my attention though. The discussion is a little depressing. It is the same old story that we should sit idlely by while others run us into the ground. This is why we have the politics that we have!

      • The PDs NeoCon politics? Under the FF/PD “NeoCon” politics, Ireland became one of the few countries in the world to actually cede extrenal control of its armed forces to the UN, under the triple lock, possibly the single most unNeoCon thing a country can do. Calling someone a “NeoCon” might be a fashionable slur, but it does not reflect the reality.

    • John Drennan (http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/john-drennan/john-drennan-hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-backbench-barrister-2236630.html) may be more perceptive than Mr. Downey. The rumblings of a heave in FF to replace one Brian with another are less likely to generate that result and might provoke some consideration of what is required to provide the Irish people with sensible governance – when both FG and FF, separately, will be confronted with a Labour Party holding the balance of power and advancing policies that will make the 1982-87 government look like a model of fiscal rectitude.

  14. I think there’s definitely room for another political party in Ireland, particularly a liberal one. I’d agree that they may not be hugely politically successful but would undoubtedly contribute hugely to the national debate and offer a unique perspective on the issues we are facing. It depends how you define success.

    The PDs had a huge influence in shaping policy formation, despite their eventual demise. Sometimes (like for the PDs), the end is not the measure of the experience. It’s just the way it ended.

    The Proportional Representation voting system favours smaller parties too.

  15. If Fine Gael is serious about really transforming Ireland it cope with a bigger picture stance – let a vastly smaller FF with Labour (bigger but not enough to give them a strong mandate or majority) form the next government and then replace Enda Kenny with Simon Coveney (clear out the front bench of all the old boys who have failed over 25 years to get Fine Gael to government including Bruton) and then Fine Gael take the battle onwards to its conclusions and destryo Fianna Fáil (and with it the mechanism which facilitates all the corruption in Ireland by agreeing to the demands made by those who pay the pipers in FF) taking Labour with it – I mean there was a time when people didn’t think the Irish Parliamentry Party or the Irish Home Rule Party could ever be replaced and they were or that Sinn Fein wasn’t the natural party of government in Ireland – it isn’t. SO why shouldn’t there come a time when FF comes to an end and when Labour – which has so completely failed to be a labour party – also comes to and end.

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