It’s interesting and refreshing to come across a politician who is more impressive and engaging in person than they are on TV or other public appearances. This used to be the norm before our politicians became identikit figures moulded by advisers and PR machines to stay on message at all times and never to utter a sound bite which hadn’t been through at least three scriptwriters beforehand.
Perhaps it’s because she wasn’t in government or the Dail long enough or because she is still close enough to her legal education and training to have retained her own personality but Lucinda Creighton betrays no trace of PR schooling when she sits down to talk about her life, her reasons for leaving Fine Gael, and her passionate belief in changing Irish politics.
Indeed, if anything, Creighton is less assured with a script than when speaking from the heart. She is open and frank in her responses to the point of genuine self-deprecation. For example, when asked if she had always been a leader she points out that she wasn’t even a prefect in her school in Claremorris, in part because of her smoking habit.
That probably led to her hanging out with what would have been termed “the wrong crowd”; something she repeated in 2010 when she played a central role in the heave against Enda Kenny while he was still leader of the opposition. This almost certainly cost her a seat in cabinet and may or may not have had an influence on the subsequent events which led to the formation of her Renua party.
What might have been is mere idle speculation. The reality is that Creighton has set out on the unenviable task of forming a new political party from the ground up and attempting to make it a force in the Dail in little more than 12 months.
She admits that she has been asked more than once if she is nuts. “Quite possibly”, she says with disarming frankness. “But if you feel strongly enough about something, about the need for change in Irish politics there is no point in sitting around just talking about it. Life would be a lot easier for me if I didn’t feel so strongly. I have a small daughter and a lot of things happening in my life. But there is no point in just being an independent TD if you want to achieve things. I am really disappoint in the lack of reform from this government. There have been a lot of opportunities for change but they have been missed. We need to make that reform and change happen.”
It is a feature of Irish political life that parties of the left can come and go almost like morning mists with little or no media attention while parties of the centre right come in for minute examination. This is possibly due to the occupation of that space by the two Civil War monoliths almost since the foundation of the state and a yearning for something different on the part of media commentators at least.
For any new party, however, it can lead to unreasonable expectations being set as well as unfortunate comparisons with the PDs. That party was launched in a series of monster meetings amid tremendous fanfare almost exactly 30 years ago. Although she was just five at the time she remembers the foundation of the PDs and is quick to explain that things are different now and why her party will not suffer the same ultimate fate.
“I’ve always been fascinated by politics and I remember clearly when the PDs were founded in 1985. But this is not the 1980s and I am not Des O’Malley. Thirty years ago people were a lot more engaged with politics and went to cumman and branch meetings. There is none of that vibrancy about politics now and that’s because people don’t see that change is possible.
“People revise history a bit when they talk about the founding of the PDs. They didn’t have a full range of policies or anything like that when they held those meetings in Salthill and Cork and Limerick. The policies came later. But the PDs lost their way and they never grasped the nettle of real reform. That won’t happen to us; we are prepared not to enter government if we don’t have a leadership role in it.”
Her decision to announce the formation process of the new party a few months prior to its actual establishment and even before a name had been chosen for the new entity surprised some and attracted not a little criticism. “We wanted to end the speculation”, she explains. “People asked why we did it that way but we had good reasons. You can’t just start a political party on your own. You need people on the ground and the announcement helped us recruit those people. We had more than 3,000 visits to the web site within a few weeks. We followed that up with meetings around the country where we were able to meet people face to face to face. We now have a team of people around the country who are charged with setting up the party structure in each constituency.”
All of this talk of party structures sounds quite traditional, particularly at a time when Shane Ross and others are talking about new forms of tight or loose collaborations between like-minded independents.
Creighton points to the limited scope independent TDs have to actually effect real change as opposed to making headlines whilst also pointing to a real need to change the whip system. “The resources that individual TDs have are very limited. The whole support system is around the cult of the leader. That has to change but you still need a party structure. We learned that when we were kicked out of Fine Gael. We had to get on our bended knees to the technical group for speaking time and we were kicked off committees and so on. This limits your effectiveness in the Dail.”
She claims to have been long-time proponent of reform of the whip system. “I spoke about that long before I lost the Fine Gael whip. The Irish whip system, is out of kilter with other modern democracies. Look at the UK government where 60 percent of the Tory MPs have defied the whip on at least one occasion during the current parliament. For example, losing the vote on Syrian air strikes may have left the prime minister with a bit of egg on his face but the world didn’t end and the government went on without feeling the need to expel people from the party.
“We need to give up our obsession with centralised decision making and stifling independent thought. We need to change behaviour in Leinster House.”
But the new party will have some form of whip system. “We will have a free vote on issues of personal conscience but there will have to be a whip system for financial issues for example”, she explains.
It will also differ from the norm in the critically important area of candidate selection. Among the traditional parties this is carried out at constituency level with varying degrees of central control and influence by the party leadership. For example, it is almost unheard of for a constituency to put forward a candidate not favoured by the Sinn Fein leadership while spats between the party establishment and local organisations are all too frequent in Fianna Fail and Fine Gael where long-time sitting TDs assume near baronial rights to constituency decision making processes.
“We want to do things differently to other parties”, she says. “I have experience in Fine Gael where you see paper branches with paper members being formed to send delegates to candidate selection conventions. We need to get away from the situation where a TD can sit on a constituency for years keeping people down.”
The Renua solution is to have the candidates selected by all members of the parties nationally and to pre-qualify them for selection through the application of objective criteria. “All candidates will be interviewed by a panel of five people and will be assessed according to objective criteria. Every member of the party will vote for the complete list of candidates but the individual candidates will have to be very much attached to their constituencies.”
No parachutes there then.
“And I won’t be part of the selection process”, Creighton adds.
It was, of course, an issue of personal conscience that led to her departure from Fine Gael. She has no regrets about that and says she does not miss the trappings of office. “I never really liked them in first place; I loved the job itself though. My area of expertise is European politics and law. I had great plans. I was so consumed working on the Fiscal Treaty Referendum and then the Irish EU Presidency that I hadn’t time for much else. I had plans for a White Paper on Ireland’s place and role in Europe. We need real reform of the European institutions, not least the dysfunctional entity that is the ECB.”
Ireland needs to be much more assertive on the European stage, she believes. “We need a lot more strategic thinking in relation to Europe. We need to think about a strategy for small nations in a very large European Union. Finland and Denmark are countries with which we should be much more closely aligned. These are countries with thriving high tech sectors and export led economies like ours but we haven’t forged the close relationships with them that we should have.
“I have huge respect for the officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs”, she continues. “They are among the very best in the civil service. But our strategy has been all about sucking up to Germany and France and that has to change. That strategy misses the point of our membership of the EU entirely; there is a lot more to it than that.”
And she says she is now even more convinced of the wisdom of her decision to stay out of Fine Gael and form a new party. “The Senate referendum confirmed for me in my own head that I didn’t want to have a lot to do with those people”, she says. “The slogans they were using were demeaning the role of democracy in our society. In their view it seems to be all about focus groups. There will be no focus groups in Renua – we will be out talking to real people and listening to them and learning about their concerns.”
The new party has been slated, perhaps a little unfairly, for its lack of clear policies in a range of areas. Creighton reiterates her earlier point that the PDs didn’t have a lot of policies to start out and people who now say they did are reinventing history.
“We want to do things differently. We are going to develop policies and work with experts to stress test them. They will be subject to peer review. We won’t be promising tax cuts or anything like that until the policy is thoroughly tested.”
One policy area on which Renua is quite clear is its pro-SME stance. While this may have been influenced by Eddie Hobbs it is clear that Creighton has strong feelings on the subject. “My concern is that nothing has changed over the past number of years in terms of policy and decision making in this area. The economic model being pursued now by Fine Gael is indistinguishable with the economic policy pursued by Fianna Fail in the past. There is still a huge emphasis on FDI and I’ve got nothing against that but it is limited in scope and only accounts for 10 percent of the workforce. There are tax implications to that emphasis as well. With all that’s coming out of the EU and OECD we’re going to have to rethink that.”
The tax treatment of SMEs compares very unfavourably with that of FDI companies in her view. “We still have the situation where self-employed individuals pay punitive taxes. It is grossly unfair and it defies everything my former party said while in opposition.”
She is also dismayed by the continued focus on construction and property for employment and economic growth. “We have to ask how an economy grows. Competitiveness is crucial and for that we need innovation but we have a situation where capital gains tax on property can be zero percent in certain cases whereas a business owner selling their firm would have to pay at 33 percent. There are a myriad of incentives for property and none for SMEs. There is no innovation required in property. This is a nonsense. I am talking to Irish people who are innovators and they are saying there is no point in staying here and starting a business, they might as well go to the UK where they will be appreciated.”
She also believes that innovation should be rewarded within SMEs. “The whole issue of employee share options needs to be looked at. There are a lot of low paid people working in the private sector and they need to be incentivised to innovate. One way of doing this is through employee share options which would help build a genuine partnership between employers and employees. Fine Gael spoke about it before entering government but has done nothing about it. It is no surprise that Ireland is on the bottom rung internationally when it comes to the willingness of people to start their own business."
She is undaunted by the initial low poll ratings that her nascent party received in its Reboot Ireland incarnation. “How can you poll something that doesn’t yet exist?” she asks. “Part of our task is to bypass the sceptical and cynical attitude of the media and reach out to people. There is bubble in Leinster House and the political correspondents become part of the establishment. If I was a national media editor I wouldn’t base anyone in there for more than two years. It will take time for us to convince people that change is possible. Politics can change.”
And she is confident that the new party will succeed. “It’s about reaching out to people who are feeling disenfranchised and convincing them that things can be different. Our values as a party are very much about Ireland as a society and not just an economy and we have to communicate them to people. We have a clear plan and we will stick to it. We will put our policies in front of the people and build momentum over the next 12 months. The election isn’t due until April 2015 but we will be ready to fight one earlier if necessary.
“The key to success in life or politics is to have a good well thought out plan and execute it. I may be relatively young in political terms but I am very experienced and I believe in what we are doing and that we will succeed.”
It may be too early to tell but if the new party’s leader’s confidence and grasp of the issues is anything to go by Renua could well be a real force to be reckoned with in the next Dail.