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Has a new law quietly made it harder to register a new political party?

One of the final pieces of legislation to be passed into law by the Oireachtas prior to their Summer recess was the Electoral Reform Act (2022.)  It attracted little attention mainly for the reason that it was supported with some minor exceptions by all of the parties. A not unusual scenario despite their constant squabbling over minutiae over social welfare increases and such like.

The main difference between the opposition and the Government was over whether the voting age should be lowered to 16, which is the wish of Sinn Féin and the left parties. The chances of Sinn Féin actually implementing that if and when they are in power themselves are pretty much minimal, but it makes for a good sound bite. Cork North Central Sinn Féin TD, Thomas Gould, appeared to suggest somewhat amusingly that had children under the age of 18 been able to vote in the 2019 local elections that his party might not have lost so many seats.  Out of the mouths of babes,  and so on …

Other electoral concerns voiced by the Shinners were that “marginalised groups, including, but not limited to, women, people of colour, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, LGBTI+, members of the Traveller and Roma communities, migrants, young people, people with disabilities and people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds” are somehow less equal when it comes to voting. And no, the above is not part of a comedy script, although it might have been; it was put on the record by a Sinn Féin TD called Patricia Ryan.

It was also noticeable that many of the opposition left liberal TDs parroted the “considerable disquiet” among NGOs that the legislation would hamper their “policy advocacy” during elections and referendums. Not surprisingly given the huge impact that the NGOS backed with massive state and billionaire foundation funding had in recent referendum campaigns.

The only person to refer to the reality of how this monster operates within this country and elsewhere was Senator Rónán Mullen who mentioned the large donations received by Amnesty International and others to bankroll their campaigns on abortion. This has led to a situation in which a “tiny unrepresentative lobby group with no membership or public support that we can prove have free rein to mount campaigns to change the law while those with an elected mandate are being hamstrung.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Bill, now enacted, are the changes that were made to the criteria for registering a new political party for the purposes of contesting future elections. Not surprisingly, not one opposition TD even referred to this nor sought to amend it by amendment.

Section 45 (b) (ii) now appears to require that any new party must have not only at least 300 recorded members, but must also, if it intends to contest seats in the Dáil or European Parliament, have at least one member who is a current sitting TD or a member of the European Parliament. In the case of a party that only intends to contest local elections, it must, in line with Section 45 (b) (iii) have at least three members who are currently elected councillors. The 2001 Act, which the 2022 Act supersedes, allowed for the membership requirement or that a party already have a TD. The current Act appears to remove that option.

Two things might be said about this. Firstly, the fact that none of the parties currently registered objected to this for obvious reasons. It not only protects their flanks from possible competition from any new political movements that might arise, but arguably raises the bar on any future schisms within the parties currently represented in Leinster House and on local authorities.

The second point also relates to the possibly of new societal movements arising which do not have current electoral representation. Ireland, thus far, has not experienced what has been a common electoral phenomenon across the democratic countries since 2000, but given that this country is now experiencing many of the pressures which have contributed to the rise of “populism” overseas, that cannot be guaranteed to always be the case.

The panic that arose around the substantial vote won by “outsider” Peter Casey in the last Presidential election is indicative of the nightmare that haunts all of the establishment parties from Fine Gael to Sinn Féin. Hot Press, a so-called “alternative” journal, even summoned Casey for an interview to prove that he was in fact on board with all of their agenda. Sorry, Peter, we mistook you for someone else.

Which raises the issue as to whether that part of the new electoral legislation is designed to pre-empt or make more difficult such a development. Lest anyone think that is myself just rambling, ask yourself how this legislation might have effected some of those new European parties, of both left and right, had such legislation been in place.

Indeed, had such legislation been in place for the 1997 general election in the Irish Republic, and had Sinn Féin not been previously registered as a political party which it had not been up to the late 1980s, it would not have been in a position to elect its first TD on the back of the IRA ceasefire. Or at least, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin would not have been permitted to put the party name on the ballot sheet.

The Sweden Democrats, now the second largest party in Sweden, would not have been permitted to register prior to their winning 20 seats, from having previously had none, in 2010. Likewise, Vox in Spain who went from no seats to 24 between the 2016 and 2019 general elections. And similarly with the Farmer-Citizen Movement, BoerBurgerBeweging, which is now polling at around 12% in Dutch opinion polls, would not have been able to contest the 2021 elections in which it returned its currently sole representative and party leader Christine van der Plas.

So, with the new Irish electoral law there is a considerable electoral barrier to a new popular political movement that might perhaps reflect some of the seismic undercurrents so far clearly only manifested as ripples on the surface of the placid pool of consensus on Kildare Street.

Although perhaps, given the presence of a small number of TDs and Senators outside of that self-referential circle, and the obvious disquiet among elected and other members of the three largest parties over where that are headed, collectively, perhaps the requirement for having already at least one elected representative might not prove such an impediment after all……

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