#RealityCheck: Do Ireland's funding rules make it impossible to start a new political party?

New voices have struggled to create a platform while competing against parties who receive high levels of State funding

#RealityCheck: Do Ireland's funding rules make it impossible to start a new political party?

Eddie Hobbs at last week's launch | Image: Photocall

"We're in good financial nick to fight an election - in Albania," says Eddie Hobbs, Renua party president during the final run-in to Friday's General Election.

He is one of many individuals tied to fledgling Irish political parties who have been highly critical of how increased restrictions on political funding have affected new groups.

He stated:"By design or accident is not the point. The result is that if the EU competition directives and Irish competition law were to cover the area of politics, which it doesn't, then the whole set up of how political parties are funded in Ireland would be completely offensive to competition principals. It is that severely anti-competitive."

Catherine Murphy, TD for Kildare North and founding Social Democrat co-leader, said that the systems for giving resources for new political parties to emerge are controlled by "insiders" from established political entities.

State funding for political parties is linked to past election performance, with no electoral record new parties currently receive none of the pot worth between €13m and €14m.

Eddie Hobbs likens the challenge of new parties taking on Ireland's well-oiled political machines as being similar to "Scuntorpe United being expected to win the European Champion's League."

Limits to political funding were introduced to counter corruption - both the Mahon and Moriarty Tribunals found that a number of leading political figures had influenced decisions, particularly planning processes.

Under the rules introduced by Phil Hogan during his time as the Minister for the Environment, parties can accept a maximum of €2,500 from a single source. All donations above €1,000 must be declared.

Individual politicians can receive donations of up to €1,000, with all sums over €600 having to be declared.

State-funded politics

However, because there is such a high level of State funding in Ireland, the new rules have acted as a formidable barrier to new parties who are attempting to enter politics.

Established parties get funds from three sources:

  • First, registered parties are provided with an annual payment to fund their parliamentary activities. These payments, known as parliamentary assistance allowances are paid to party leaders for their parliamentary, press and research activities. The total amount paid under this category is more than €8m.
  • Secondly, under the Electoral Act 1997, in the region of a further €6m of public funding is also provided to the four large parties annually to fund their party organisations. This was allocated in accordance with their percentage share of the national first preference poll in the previous election. While the latter tranche of money is prohibited by law from being used for electioneering it allows parties to re-direct monies from fundraising to be exclusively used to fund elections while using the State funds to maintain the party.
  • Sitting TDs and Senators are provided with secretarial support, researchers and funding for constituency office operations.

The funding disparity is illustrated by the fact that in 2013 Fine Gael received almost €5m as the State's largest party, Labour got €3m, while Fianna Fail received €2.8m.

On the other end, of the scale People Before Profit was given €143,000, the Socialist Party received €74,000 while Independent TDs got over €41,000 per representative. 

Funds for TD’s who left a party to form or join a new party, such as Renua and Social Democrat deputies, are still paid to the party that they were elected for in the previous General Election.

Balnk slate

Eddie Hobbs says that he believes that the "democratic process has been badly affected," by funding limitations and that parties like Renua are "running on fumes" and almost completely dependent on volunteer hours, "sometimes you need to act like a Peacock, and try to appear bigger than you are," the economist continued.

The Corkman adds with a large portion of the electorate feeling that the Government has failed to deliver on many of their promises, and with The Labour Party facing a backlash from voters, he believes that if new voices cannot gain a foothold after this election, that indicates that there is something wrong with the system.

He continued: "If new political parties that want to do things differently, that have clear ideas that aren't in anyway extreme at all - if they can't gain ground then it's telling the public that something is very seriously wrong."

Foothold

Newstalk's political analyst Ordan Flynn commented on the extent of the challenge facing these groups:

"It has become more difficult to start a new party as all funding has to be raised from scratch and they are competing with incumbents who have access to considerable funds. Even if they are able to muster sufficient finance to mount a campaign they will not have access to the party funding unless they obtain at least 2% of the national vote in the General Election.

"In essence new parties and individuals have to hope that the message they are selling attracts sufficient support."

However he adds that there is still hope for Ireland's new parties: 

"With the current state of the polls, smaller parties who are opposing the government may well manage an electoral breakthrough and at least begin to narrow the gap between the haves and have nots."

Eddie Hobbs concludes that he will reserve his judgement regarding whether it is possible to create a viable new political party within the current rules until after polling day.

Live from @ElectionNT