Friday, January 10, 2014


First published in the Western People on Monday.

Irish politics is like an iceberg. Only a small amount is visible at any one time, while there is a great mass of it that’s hidden, away from prying eyes.

This was especially obvious this Christmas, as the TDs and Senators luxuriate in a break that lasts for another ten days or so. But while they continue to relax, at home or abroad, the more thoughtful members of the Oireachtas will be wondering: what is Lucinda Creighton going to do next, and how dearly might I myself pay for it?

As discussed in this place earlier, Lucinda Creighton has it in her power to finally close the book on the civil war, and lead Ireland into the second century of independence (such as it is). So far, she has not put a foot wrong and, while the theoretically-retired Gay Byrne has been on television more often than Creighton, her influence is everywhere.

Creighton outsmarted Sinn Féin in backing a winner during the Seanad Referendum, and now she’s released another cat among the pigeons when the news broke over the holidays that the Reform Alliance has registered as a political party with the Standards in Public Office Commission.

What does this mean? It means as much as you want it to be mean, really. Registering with the Standards in Public Office Commission means that the Reform Alliance can fundraise. That in itself doesn’t necessarily mean the party will fundraise. The act of registration is just another chess piece, sliding along the board. It may mean nothing, or everything. We’ll have to wait and see.

The second interesting thing that came to light over the holidays is that if the party is formed, it will not be formed until September. And that delay leads to three more fascinating points of interest.

Firstly, the delay allows Lucinda Creighton herself to have her baby (announced in November) before she returns to the front lines. There had been speculation that Michael McDowell or Shane Ross were potential leaders of the Reform Alliance, but this does not stand up to scrutiny.

McDowell failed as leader of the PDs, and there is no evidence to believe that the sovereign people would follow Shane Ross in the queue at Tesco’s if they could avoid it. If there is no Lucinda Creighton, there will be no Reform Alliance. Right now, Creighton is Irish politics’ Joan of Arc, for good or ill.

Secondly, if the party isn’t to be launched until September, that means the Creightonites are avoiding the local elections entirely. Conventional wisdom is that you need boots on the ground for general elections – that your candidates must have served their time in local councils before moving on to the Premier League of the Teachtaí Dhála.

But of course, if the word “reform” in the party title is to mean anything, then it makes sense to avoid the local elections. Maybe reform means no longer presuming that the Dáil is just a king-size county-council, and that a TD is an equally king-sized county councillor. Maybe that’s not what you want in a legislator.

There is a risk in this strategy. If one particular party does particularly well during the locals, the momentum is then with that party, and taken from the Creightonites, but little in this life is guaranteed. It’s a risk worth taking, and besides the corollary – no clear momentum behind anyone, low turnout, oddball results – makes a further case for the Reform Alliance.

But the third interesting thing about leaving the formation of the Reform Alliance for nine months is that the delay gives nine months’ breathing room to mend fences between Fine Gael and the Creightonites before all is lost. And that possibility isn’t to be ruled out at all.

Have Fine Gael learned the lesson of history? Fine Gael has traditionally been the alternative party of government since 1932. When the PDs were formed in the 1980s, they took a slice off Fianna Fáil, specially FF’s long-cherished core value of never going into coalition, but the PDs did severe damage to Fine Gael.

No Fine Gael leader led his party to general election victory during the life of the PDs, not least as middle class votes that used to go to Fine Gael went to the PDs instead. Do Fine Gael want to risk that happening again? Is it better to have Lucinda Creighton inside the tent?

Fine Gael will think about that very seriously in the run-up to the local and European elections in the summer. Enda Kenny has been a phenomenal success as Taoiseach, and has grown into the role. But politics is not a sentimental game and Fine Gael will make a cold and hard assessment based on potential, rather than achievement. Gratitude is poor currency in politics.

If the local and European elections go well for Fine Gael, Creightonism will be over. Enda will be unassailable, it will be all the one to Fine Gael if Lucinda Creighton forms a new party or a rock band, and Creighton’s time will have passed. But if the elections go badly for Fine Gael, the potential for a Creighton reconciliation will be there, as the lesser of two potential evils.

It will depend where the power lies. There will be a faction who want Kenny gone and their own candidate in as leader. There will be another faction who are aware that Creighton’s return may make her heir-in-waiting to new leader, and that new leader will not relish the thought of always having to watch his or her back.

And these are just the macro-factors that anybody can figure out when you sit down and think about it. Politics, as the former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, are entirely dictated by events. Who knows what story will break between now and September that will turn over the entire board, and have everyone start again? NAMA? The public sector? A constitutional crisis? Who knows?

Whatever happens, it’s an interesting time to study Irish politics. It would be tremendous fun if only the future of the country weren’t at stake.