Friday, October 18, 2013

Enda, Lucinda, and the Future of the Country

First published in the Western People on Monday.

It’s not often that the two most important politicians in the country are from County Mayo. Not only is that the case currently, but both Lucinda Creighton and Enda Kenny have it in their power to change the politics of the country forever, if they should so choose.

Enda Kenny is already a winner in this regard. The underestimated man has proven himself a leader of courage in a time of crisis in the country, and this can never be taken away from him. He has certainly blundered here and there along the way but the man who makes no mistakes is the man who does nothing at all. If Kenny were to resign in the morning history would view his Premiership favourably.

Enda Kenny is the man who brought stability back to the economy and, in a time of deep national unease, the man’s fundamental optimism and good humour were badly needed. He is getting a hard time currently over the Seanad referendum, which certainly was a blunder, but the Seanad will not be an issue on the doorsteps come either next year’s local and European elections or the general election that will decide who governs on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. You can safely bet the children’s allowance on that.

Lucinda Creighton may dispute that assessment of Kenny. It’s become quite clear over the years that the one party couldn’t hold two such contrasting personalities. Creighton left – or was pushed – from Fine Gael over her stance on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, but it could be that a row was always going to flare up and this Bill just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Life throws these things at us.

But now that she’s on the outside against her will, what does Creighton see as her options? The cleverest thing to do would have been to take her beating, and then be re-admitted to the party in time for the next general election. The Kenny faction may not like her, but there are plenty in Fine Gael who do. Equally, there is a population who, whatever their views on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill itself, admire Creighton’s courage in standing against the tide, and the woman’s considerable intellect. If she did her porridge, as it were, Fine Gael would have found a way back for her.

Instead, Creighton has been making waves. Where she could have sat out the battle and knitted on the backbenches, she has instead formed the Reform Alliance from among the other TDs who were ejected with her, and Denis Naughten, who lost the Fine Gael whip earlier over Roscommon Hospital. And what the Reform Alliance will do next is the pivot on which the history of this country will turn.

It all depends on whether or not Enda Kenny is still leader of Fine Gael come the next general election. He was seen as a sure thing, but his enemies – who never went away – will have been given fresh heart by the Seanad fiasco. Richard Bruton is certainly finished as an alternative leader, but there are plenty others willing to step up. Under a new regime, would Creighton and the Reform Alliance be welcomed back to Fine Gael’s bosom? Of course they would, if for no other reason to have them where the new leader can see them.

But what will the Reform Alliance do while Kenny is still the boss? The very formation of the Reform Alliance was a surprise. The Reform Alliance’s intervention in the Seanad Referendum, though almost certainly of no impact to the result, was a positive shock. The Reform Alliance was testing its muscle, to see how much they could press off the bench. And that then begs the question of how much muscle will they have built up when or if a return to Fine Gael becomes a prospect?

This is the big question in Irish politics now. The country is no longer in crisis, but it is a long way from being back on its feet. The turnout of the Seanad referendum and the repeated opinion polls that show such strong support for independents mean that there is a considerable amount of the population that no longer feels it has a voice in national politics. The space for a new party is clearly there.

There are three things that generally stand against the prospect of a new party. The first is opportunity, as Irish politics is conservative and loathe to change. The upheaval caused by the crash changes this for as long as the trauma lasts.

The second problem is finance, but a right-wing party will always attract more money than a left-wing one – who would finance a party that, once it gets into power, will only take even more money off you in taxes? It makes no sense.

The final point, then, is leadership. For a new party to exist, it needs a strong and charismatic leadership. Creighton has that gift. She could have wormed her way out of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, as others in Fine Gael did, but she stood her ground and suffered considerable consequences to her career. In a political system often accused of careerism and nothing else, she displayed integrity and courage. A lot of people still don’t agree with Creighton’s stance, but a considerable number of those cannot help but admire the woman’s courage.

If things fell their way, the Reform Alliance could win enough seats in the general election to be kingmaker in the next Dáil. By holding the balance of power, the Reform Alliance could make real and substantial reform the price of that king-making. In so doing, they could end civil war politics in Ireland, and do so at the symbolically important point in time of the 100th anniversary of the Rising. Ireland would stop being a teenager and accept adult responsibilities.

That’s the choice facing Lucinda Creighton from Claremorris in the coming months and years. Wait for an opportunity to return to Fine Gael, or take her chance at changing Irish politics forever. May God guide her in whatever decision she chooses to make.