Reform Alliance steps forward

could this be the political alternative we have been waiting for?

As well as the many pro-life supporters who feel alienated from the Government following Enda Kenny’s decision to introduce abortion, opinions polls point to a wider disenchantment with the political establishment. Many private sector workers feel unfairly targeted by higher taxation while genuine public sector reform seems as elusive as ever.

The announcement by the Reform Alliance – currently exclusively made up of those expelled from Fine Gael – that it is to hold an Ardfheis-style meeting in Dublin’s RDS on January 25 will be welcomed by many eager for change. The meeting is being seen as a move to widen its base and test its public appeal.


Initially, the Reform Alliance has earmarked politics, the economy and the health service as the three key areas for reform. The alliance has invited potential supporters to submit, in 300 words or less, the outline of a reform idea in one of these three areas.

Fine Gael’s support for abortion, despite a pre-election promise not to legislate, coupled with the failed attempt by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to impose a pro-abortion stance on his party has shown that there is little choice for people who are uneasy about the political push for abortion.

But, if a new party were to emerge, it would have to be broader than just abortion and other controversial social issues. It is likely that the Reform Alliance – in a bid to broaden the appeal – will reach out to people like Independent TDs Stephen Donnelly and Shane Ross who would hold liberal views on issues like abortion, but have a contribution to make to political reform.

A party whip

So what are the options? If the Reform Alliance emerged as a political party, it could follow the lead of the Progressive Democrats, for example, and have no policy on abortion and other controversial social issues. Alternatively, the party could adopt a pro-life policy and permit members to have a free conscientious vote on the subject and other controversial matters. The lack of a party whip on such issues at a time when parties like Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Féin maintain an iron grip on members’ votes would send a powerful signal that conscience is more important that loyalty. As it is, Ireland is unusual for the draconian way in which TDs and Senators who refuse to vote with their party on every single issue are expelled. In Britain, for example, Conservative backbenchers regularly vote against the coalition government on a range of issues and the sky doesn’t fall in.

But, the issue of abortion and the strength of public disenchantment with TDs and senators who supported the legislation cannot be underestimated. Every month Amárach Consulting, a well-known and reputable market research firm (used by Fine Gael among others) conducts a survey of 1,000 Irish people, the sample controlled to make sure it is representative of the Irish population. In May last year Amárach asked a question: If there was an election tomorrow, would you be more likely or less likely to vote for a TD or senator who supports the introduction of abortion?

General election

If replicated at a general election, the answers could well be political dynamite: 58pc of Fianna Fáil voters, 43pc of Fine Gael voters, 16pc of Labour voters and 34pc of Sinn Féin voters said they are less likely to vote for a candidate who supported the introduction of abortion.

In other words a clear majority of Fianna Fáil voters disagree with their party leader on the topic of abortion, and a very substantial minority in Fine Gael voters are at odds with their party leader, only the Labour leader seems to be (largely) in tune with his supporters.

The conventional wisdom in Fine Gael is that about 20pc of its supporters will huff and puff, and maybe stay at home for the local elections but then return to the fold for the general election over the issue of abortion. However, this poll suggests they are wrong on the numbers and may be equally wrong on the impact of the legislation on their core vote. Abortion is a hot button issue for a not insignificant number of voters, an issue that can cause people to switch who they vote for.


Opinion polls regularly show nearly a third of the electorate is undecided, but does this mean there is a new political party needed or does it just demonstrate that people are fed-up or apathetic about Irish politicians?

It seems clear that there is a growing appetite for a new party, but this new party could not be a clone of the Progressive Democrats or the Green Party, that is urban and middle-class, readers of The Irish Times. For a new party to be successful it needs to be able to reach out to rural conservatives and engage with younger voters particularly in the commuter belt.

Tacking the crisis in the health service and getting to grips with authentic public sector reform will also be key to attracting hard-pressed private sector workers who feel disadvantaged by austerity. Getting the right mix of policies and candidates to do this will be a challenge, but then again that is just what Fine Gael did in the last election and a new party could possibly do in the next general election.

After the 2011 general election Enda Kenny promised a ‘democratic revolution’. There has been little or no evidence of such a shift in the political establishment. His expulsion of Lucinda Creighton and her Reform Alliance colleagues could well create a movement to once-and-for-all put an end to Civil War politics by reaching across traditional divides.