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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 9 December, 2019
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9 things we learned from the Reform Alliance’s ‘monster meeting’

The turnout was good, the ideas were flowing and the organisers appeared delighted with themselves. But what chance a political party?

Updated at 9.10pm


EXPELLED AND FORMER Fine Gael TDs organised an efficient and well-run conference at the RDS in Dublin where the attendance of over a thousand people surprised a large and intrigued media contingent.

The conference was being billed as a prelude to the establishment of a political party but the organisers, led by the Reform Alliance’s most prominent member Lucinda Creighton, were keen to emphasise that it was a meeting about ideas and policies.

TheJournal.ie spent the day at the RDS and here’s what we found out…

1. The turnout was larger than expected:

For good reason, the RA set attendance expectations at a low bar of between 400 and 500, but the turnout was well over a thousand, with the RDS concert hall largely full:

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2. There were more men than women – but no ‘squeezed middle’:

In the afternoon, economist David McWilliams told the audience that “large parts of the middle class of this country are bust” and while there’s no doubt many of the people attending today were middle-class there was an interesting gender and age divide.

Olivia O’Leary posed a question at the start of her contribution: “Why am I looking at so few female faces?” Though it wasn’t quite as bad as a typical day in the Dáil chamber there were certainly more men than women in the audience.

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There were also a large number of people over-50s and under-25s, but no real contingent of the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ – people in their 30s and 40s who are said to be weighed down with troubled mortgages and lots of debt.

3. The RA’s abortion stance was a big attraction for many in the audience:

The two largest rounds of applause today were for when the issue of abortion was raised.

In the morning, a gentleman in the audience pointed out that the RA’s entire existence is solely because of Fine Gael’s u-turn on abortion. Then as the day drew to a close and Creighton addressed the issue there was a huge round of applause:


There was a significant number of prominent pro-life activists in the audience and the only other Oireachtas members we spotted today were Senator Ronan Mullen and TD Mattie McGrath, both strongly anti-abortion.

But David McWilliams made light of the whole issue, joking at the end: “I think I must be the only pro-choice liberal in the place.”

Afterwards, Creighton said she is “not concerned about it” and hit out at specifically the Irish Times, saying: “I think it’s concerned that perhaps that we mightn’t fit into their [Irish Times] agenda, that’s certainly how I would interpret a lot of the coverage of it in the last couple of weeks, but that’s fine.”

4. But people were there for lots of different reasons:

Political-junkies, Fine Gael members (disgruntled and non-disgruntled), ex-Fianna Fáil members, pro-life activists and many more turned-out today. As we found out earlier, they were there for many different reasons, ranging from a strong desire to a passing interest in some sort of political and societal reform.

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5. We heard a lot of old ideas, but some new ones too…

All three sessions – political reform, health and economy – heard the usual complaints with the usual apparently common-sense solutions.

For example, the morning’s political reform session heard old ideas about appointing non-politicans as minsters, term limits for TDs and abolishing multi-seat constituencies in favour of single seats so politicians can focus on national issues.

But there were plenty of interesting and practical ideas too with the most popular policy idea from Blackrock clinic co-founder Dr Jimmy Sheehan. He proposed locating the National Children’s Hospital in Blanchardstown and criticised the government’s plan to locate it at St James’s Hospital as “the worst possible site in the country”. He got a standing ovation.

During the session on the economy, there was a strong focus on small business and creating a “regulation free zone” for SMEs. That’s an area Creighton highlighted afterwards: “We will be launching a campaign focusing on encouraging people to support local business and that’s something that we’ll be rolling out in the weeks ahead.”

5. … but nobody was talking about pylons:

An event such as this might have been a lightning rod for anti-pylon campaigners, but the issue wasn’t discussed, nor raised. That’s perhaps not surprising given the location of the event.

But those that came up from the countryside felt it should have been raised. When Tom McGurk said pylon talk should be avoided at the event, one audience in our earshot remarked: “It’s exactly what we should be talking about.”

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6. The contrarians and malcontents were few and far between

Audience members’ participation was limited to two minutes per person, ensuring an orderly and constructive input from the floor and no rambling speeches that have no point, and no end.

There was the odd silly comment, for example a gentlemen remarked that women do not have the “attributes” to put themselves forward in politics, but he was quickly smacked down by a woman who followed him. She described it as “the worst comment I’ve ever heard”.

7. The conference was the talk of Twitter… and TDs:

The day’s audience contribution didn’t get off to the best start when broadcaster Marc Coleman, in praise of Olivia O’Leary, remarked: “Even if you’re old, you’re still hot.”

That didn’t go down well on Twitter, which was abuzz for much of the day with tweets from the event and those following it on their mobile devices. Even government TDs took time to address the conference:

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We also heard from one unimpressed minister – who was clearly keeping a close eye on our tweets. Or maybe they had spies in the audience.

8. Not everyone thought there should be a new party…

While the RA themselves remain open if not committed to forming a political party the audience sentiment ranged from a strong desire to have one to, as one audience member remarked, needing “a new party like a hole in the head’.

9. … but ‘the pro’ thinks the beginning of a party looks like this:

While many of the contributors were Irish-based the conference heard an interesting outside perspective from former David Cameron policy advisor, Phillip Blond, who later told TheJournal.ie: ‘This is what the start of a political party looks like.”

Blond wasn’t being paid for his appearance and seemed genuinely interested and energised by what he was seeing in the RDS. His advice to the Reform Alliance? Start a political party and do it in the next nine months. “Go for it and win,” he said adding that that was his “professional opinion”.

He said he’d be happy to keep on advising the RA about how to break the “oligarchy” of the State’s two main parties. If they are to form a party then they may well seek out his views. Afterwards, Creighton described Blond as “a very good political analyst and advisor”.

But will she and the rest of the RA be taking his advice?

Pics: Twitter and Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

First posted at 5.41pm

WATCH: ‘I’m here to see if reform is actually achievable’ (videos)

Read: ‘We need a new party like a hole in the head’: Conference discusses political and health reform

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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