Joe Finnegan has been a fixture on the airwaves of the border and midland counties for several decades now, and his morning show on Shannonside Northern Sound FM is one of the most-listened to current affairs programmes in the country, even if it regularly escapes the attention of the national media. And so, many people may have missed this appearance, yesterday morning, by Independent TD Michael FitzMaurice.
Podcast: Michael Fitzmaurice talks about wanting to form a rural political entity https://t.co/5yFs11Ka0U
— Joe Finnegan Show (@JoeFinneganShow) September 16, 2021
The money quote, from Finnegan: “Is it fair to say, Michael FitzMaurice, that if you and others are not successful in forming a rural-based political entity to represent the concerns of rural Ireland, which could go in as a junior partner in a coalition Government, you will not be running in the next election?” Fitzmaurice’s reply: “Yes, that is fair to say”.
New political parties come and go and setting up a political party is one of the hardest things anybody can do. The challenges are immense: Our political system means, for example, that one person alone cannot make the difference, since you can only be elected in one constituency. Peadar Toibín, for example, has a relatively safe seat. But the challenge for Aontú is, and has been, finding other people to win seats elsewhere. They’ve managed some good candidates in places like Wexford, Cavan Monaghan, and Cork North West, but it has naturally been a struggle to find candidates elsewhere. And without running candidates in every constituency, it becomes much harder to hit that 2% of the vote which is required to access state funding.
That’s before you consider the other challenges: New parties tend to attract the disaffected. Those who, for whatever reason, have not found a home in the rest of the political system. Often, that means people with – to put it kindly – ideas that are far outside the mainstream of the country. It is very easy to find yourself setting up a political party to deal with economic issues, and suddenly find that you have candidates and activists who are mostly concerned with the amount of fluoride in the water, or whether 5G is a conspiracy. This, of course, makes it easy for the media and other parties to portray your new enterprise as slightly mad.
But FitzMaurice has an advantage, or, at least, a potential advantage: There are lots of politicians who might, in theory at least, align with him who are already elected, and already broadly respected. Indeed, although there is no guarantee or evidence that any of these people would sign on, a party that comprised FitzMaurice, along with Noel Grealish, Denis Naughten, The Healy Rae brothers, Mattie McGrath, Verona Murphy, Michael Collins, and Carol Nolan, to name but a few, would already have 9 seats, and be the fifth largest party in the Dáil. That makes it easier to attract candidates, and voters, and much easier to pass the 2% threshold at an election.
But would any of those people sign on?
Arguably, each of them has a higher national profile as an independent than they would as a member of a party. Most of them are independents because, well, they are very politically independent minded. Would they really or easily make the transition to being back-benchers for a political party, having to go out and sell policies in the media that they do not personally agree with? It is hard to see.
What is clear, though, is that there is a market for something like this. All of the people mentioned – along with others, like Marion Harkin and Michael McNamara – won their elections with big votes. Many of them pulled support from an electorate that once voted for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but find themselves disillusioned by those parties. There are many other voters who may be drawn to an opposition alternative that is neither hard left, nor Sinn Fein. The gap in the market exists, but filling it is not straightforward.
Still, there is plenty of international precedent for a successful, rural, populist party. The National Party of Australia, for example, has been successful for many years. Here in Ireland, we’ve had short-lived mainly rural groups in the past. There is a market for it, but FitzMaurice will probably find it easier said than done.