Friday 30 September 2016

As I sat in Shane Ross's office during Christmas week, he was planning for this exact scenario

Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30

Shane Ross and Finian McGrath have a discussion before the Cabinet heads in to the Dáil
Shane Ross and Finian McGrath have a discussion before the Cabinet heads in to the Dáil
Simon Coveney chats with Independents Noel Grealish (left) and Denis Naughten at Leinster House Photo: Tom Burke
Katherine Zappone Photo: Tom Burke

It was Christmas week and Shane Ross was sitting in his office in Agriculture House, musing about this exact scenario.

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He believed the Independent Alliance could hold the balance of power after the election - and for the first time made it completely clear that he wanted to be in government.

There had been a long-running dialogue in political circles that the Alliance was one of two things: A boys' club that wanted to create mischief from the Opposition benches, or a masterplan by Ross to get into Cabinet.

"That should be knocked on the head," he said. "It never occurred to me before this term in the Dáil that I'd ever be in a position to talk like this. It still didn't occur to me until journalists started saying it."

At the same time, Renua Ireland and the Social Democrats appeared to offer a more structured option to the electorate.

The narrative went that if the public wanted 'new politics' then it was more likely that one of these small parties would be more likely to provide it than a loose grouping of Independents who wouldn't be whipped.

But Ross argued: "Our calling card is going to be that we are utterly and totally different.

"The fact that we don't use the party whip will lead our crusade for giving power back to the people through the Dáil."

On the surface, it is hard to see what could possibly link somebody like Ross, a south Dublin stockbroker, and Finian McGrath, a left-leaning northsider.

Add Roscommon turf cutter Michael Fitzmaurice, socialist John Halligan and ex-Fianna Fáiler Tom Fleming and it was far more than an eclectic mix. It was the closest thing you'd find to an eccentric mix.

Ross sat back in his chair and boomed out laughter as he described the 'craic' they sometimes had at meetings in that same office.

They'd sit around a small table and shoot the breeze about politics and policies.

He happily admitted that he wouldn't have a clue what Fitzmaurice was talking about when he'd start ranting about EU directives on bogs but that was fine. Between them all he felt they had all bases covered.

Fleming dropped off the ticket but two other names like Kevin 'Boxer' Moran and Sean Canney emerged.

And no matter how the media plugged and probed, Ross and his 'partners in politics' continued to insist they were not a party.

"It's not a Shane Ross group," he said, while simultaneously playing up his role as the most experienced member of the 'not Shane Ross group'.

Then on polling day the notion that Ireland was "crying out" for a new party was shattered when more Independents were elected to parliament than in any other country in the western world.

Throughout the campaign Enda Kenny had insisted he did not want a government "propped up" by a 'rag bag' or a 'dolly mixture' who would not be able to withstand the heat of Irish politics.

Yet the electorate didn't believe many things that Mr Kenny said in the run up to the election.

Call it luck or call it political intuition but as the ballots rolled out of the boxes on February 27, Ross was right.

Despite a good showing, the Social Democrats failed to add any followers to their three co-leaders. And Renua faired even worse, losing all their seats.

The Alliance got six TDs over the line and were suddenly big players.

At the same time, Denis Naughten, a Fine Gael TD defector, began forming a Rural Alliance.

It appeared even more coherent than Ross's group, mainly because its five members - Naughten, Dr Michael Harty, Noel Grealish, Mattie McGrath and Michael Collins - all came from similar backgrounds.

The two groups forced Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to do a deal on a minority government and anointed themselves kingmakers - without even having to promise they'd all back Kenny.

And the real logic of the 'alliance' finally became clear yesterday, as Ross stepped forward to take a position in Cabinet, while Fitzmaurice decided to let the bus to Áras an Uachtarain leave without him. Naughten took another place at the top table, while McGrath, Collins and Grealish fell away.

Yet their approach changed the whole dynamic of 'compromise'.

They negotiated, as a group, high-level promises on political reform, health and housing.

But then they managed to extract individual deals from Fine Gael on the side: the Western Rail Corridor, funding for local and regional roads, an Atlantic Economic Corridor and a review of cardiac services at Waterford Hospital.

The Labour Party must feel they were horribly exploited five years ago when Fine Gael convinced them to abandon many of their principles in the 'national interest'.

The Independents have shown that the 'local interest' can be just as useful an argument.

The country has voted for this and now we must live with the result.

If it works, it might just be 'an earthquake'. If it doesn't, we'll get another chance to vote in the coming months.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ross's first act as Transport Minister was to get himself in trouble by confirming the news to the media before the Taoiseach announced it in the Dáil.

But after 35 years in Opposition, the Taoiseach is likely to let that one go.

Back in Agriculture House five months ago, Ross described his Cabinet ambition like this: "I'd love it, yes. It's one way to influence people and getting things done, moving things in your own direction, pulling the levers of power, reforming the thing, teaching the big parties a lesson which they'd never forget and making a radical difference. There is no doubt I'd love to do that."

The Independents will only have themselves to blame if they don't deliver.

Irish Independent

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