Thursday 29 September 2016

Independents face delicate tightrope in the new Dáil

Published 02/05/2016 | 02:30

Ken Lee cartoon
Ken Lee cartoon

Months after he was first elected in June 2002, Finian McGrath wrote to all the political writers at Leinster House accusing them of ignoring him because, as an Independent, he was deemed "an outsider".

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At the time I was annoyed, because he did not include me on his mailing list. It meant he was ignoring me, while I ignored him. But we all have to bear up and get on with our lives.

It was an unusual move because politicians rarely go to war in writing with political scribes. They usually find other ways of evening up the score. But that delightful topic is for another day.

The point is that Finian McGrath, like a large number of the Independents, has proved impossible to ignore for any length of time. Successful Independent politicians, who compete with big well-resourced parties, usually have an abundance of character, flair and a keen eye for publicity.

That is part of the reason why they make it through the portals of Leinster House.

In the history of this State, we have had few Independents until recently. In fact they numbered fewer than 10 for the most part. Exceptions were in the early years from 1922-32 and in the general elections of 1948 and 1951.

The return to prominence of Independent TDs can be dated to the early 1980s, when gradually changing political patterns led to very tight Dáil arithmetic. Remember Independent socialist TD Jim Kemmy voting down the Budget and the government in 1982? Or Dublin Central Independent Tony Gregory securing a huge investment for the capital that same year. They dramatically showed the power of one deputy in such situations.

Still, the actual numbers of Independent TDs remained small. After the June 1997 General Election, four out of seven Independent TDs agreed to support Bertie Ahern's minority Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition. Jackie Healy-Rae of Kilgarvan was soon to become the best known of these - and he went on to create a formidable political dynasty in Kerry.

But Harry Blaney of Donegal, Mildred Fox of Wicklow and Thomas Gildea of Glenties in Donegal all proved able to secure positive developments for their constituents. Healy-Rae, Blaney and Fox had strong Fianna Fáil links and both Healy-Rae and Blaney were very seasoned and wily operators.

It was a formalised arrangement with a middle-ranking civil servant assigned to liaise with the four TDs and a weekly meeting with then-government chief whip, the ever-personable Séamus Brennan, to ensure all went smoothly. In August 2000, Jackie Healy-Rae noted that records had shown neither he nor Thomas Gildea had uttered a word in the Dáil chamber during 1999.

That was "irrelevant", Healy-Rae argued, given the kind of access they had to the levers of power. All four insisted that there was never a situation when they held anyone to ransom and their support was consistent from start to finish. There was 'give and take', and sometimes it was apparent that much of what they got amounted to first call on announcing good news for their constituencies.

It gave rise to tensions locally. Government-supporting backbenchers found it especially iniquitous. The lack of transparency on what exactly these Independents were getting in return for their votes was a recurring issue and it is unlikely that we can repeat that with our new and pending government arrangements.

But like the actions of Jim Kemmy and Tony Gregory in 1982, the power and political leverage of this quartet helped whet the voter appetite for Independent TDs. In the 2002 and 2011 General Elections there were 14 Independent TDs elected.

The great disenchantment with conventional party politicians also clearly accentuated this trend, and on February 26 last, a record 23 Independent TDs were returned. The irony is that Independents are perceived to be "political outsiders", while a glance at most of their CVs shows that most of them are in fact seasoned politicians with a great ability to get inside the system.

The 1997-2002 stint is probably the nearest thing we have to a precedent for the current unique situation. The complication this time is that the number of Independents is larger, and they have a more diverse background - and range of demands. Things are further complicated by the need for Fianna Fáil to continually abstain to keep the government in place and the prospect of a leadership change in Fine Gael, the lead party of the minority coalition.

The issue specifically for the 14 or so Independent TDs talking about government support is that by definition they are perceived to be 'agin' the government - whatever that government may be. The challenge for them will be to modify that stance without alienating their local support base by being seen to merge into government.

Assuming a sufficient number of them can make a deal with Fine Gael in the coming two days, doubts will persist about how long they can continue that support when hard choices have to be made. The doubt will relate to the pressures on them, rather than there being any suspicion of bad faith on the part of these Independents.

In summer 2007, for example, Finian McGrath supported the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition. But he withdrew in autumn 2008 over changes to pensioners' medical cards. At the time he argued that he had little choice - and in reality, he may not still be a TD had he done otherwise.

It all reminds us of the pressures ahead.

Irish Independent

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