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Independents are backbone of Government - but ungrateful voters look set to ditch them

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Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke

Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke

Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke

The result of last year's General Election saw more independent representatives elected to Dáil Éireann than at any other time in the history of the State. Exhausted by austerity and political tumult, the Irish electorate punished most mainstream parties and it quickly became clear that Independent TDs would be a crucial part of the make-up of the next administration.

Headline writers gleaned much mirth from juxtaposing the irony that in our centenary year of independence, it would be Independent TDs, and not the established Civil War parties, who would provide the fulcrum of power.

Politically speaking, no one covered themselves in glory in the aftermath of the election. Cobbling together the current Government configuration became a painstaking, 70-day-long protracted negotiation process. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil slugged it out to decide who wouldn't pay for water.

It was a far cry from the visceral patriotism of the GPO in 1916.

As the final shaky third attempt to elect Enda Kenny as Taoiseach evolved into a farcical charade about turf-cutting, we cringed with the nauseating embarrassment of a teenage girl in a no make-up selfie gone viral.

A group of Independent TDs provided a third leg to Fianna Fáil's confidence-and-supply arrangement, and dragged Enda over the line. Back then, many of us thought it would be those Independents who would prove to be the shakiest leg of the stool, the weakest link in the chain.

With the exception of Transport Minister Shane Ross, the Independents at Cabinet were viewed by some as a group of country misfits, politically inferior to the more erudite and urbane blue-shirted brotherhood of posh boys and girls.

Well, a year on, closer analysis suggests otherwise. In fact, some of the Independent ministers are among the most productive in the Cabinet, doing some jobs that a cynic might suggest were only given to them because of their potential toxicity to the Fine Gael core vote.

The Independent Alliance still seems a tad fractured at times. But the premise of independently elected politicians with no elected leader and no party whip acting as a collective within Government was an odd proposition to begin with. However, they are coming to terms with the workings of Government.

From the outside at least, it seems that greater structure is being adopted within the group and better lines of communication seem to be in place now. Although trust between Fine Gael and the Independents generally will not have been improved in the wake of the Sgt Maurice McCabe debacle.

Independent ministers have provided a solid base for Government business. Between them, they have delivered many practical changes which will prove popular with the public, initiatives that Fine Gael will rely upon when it goes to the country looking for votes.

For example, the introduction of the Affordable Childcare Scheme was the 'big-ticket' announcement for Budget 2017. While many ministers in the past (of all political persuasions) were faced with criticism over the high cost of childcare, it was an Independent, Children's Minister Katherine Zappone, who effectively delivered the first steps on the way to a more equitable and fair childcare payment system.

Another of the more productive Independent contributors to Government is Communications Minister Denis Naughten. Commanding issues such as climate change, waste, broadband and digital safety, the brief is wide and varied but he has shown a calm patience in dealing with some tricky issues in a workmanlike fashion.

Interestingly, even on issues which are outside of his brief, he often provides the voice of reason and calm. Extremely versatile on the public stage, he often appears more convincing than Cabinet colleagues who are actually charged with the brief. Consistently ruling himself out of a return to the Fine Gael stable makes him a powerful and essential part of any future minority government.

Mr Ross has been described by some insiders as truculent and stubborn, but no one disputes that he is a very hard worker. He has earned somewhat of a reputation as the 'absent minister', largely because of his refusal to engage with the media, an anomaly only magnified by the fact that he once was a more frequent visitor to the airwaves than the hourly news bulletin. His latest proposals for changes to the Road Safety Act by imposing a mandatory disqualification for first-time drink-driving offenders are as ambitious and unapologetic as the man himself.

Ironically, a lot of this good work is increasingly being overshadowed by a collection of crises caused by Fine Gael which, based on experience alone, should be the more cohesive part of this administration.

As its leadership contest continues as an open secret, Fine Gael seems unabashed by the paralysis it is inflicting on public policy. Convulsed by the posh boy beauty pageant between ministers Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, life outside Leinster House goes on. The Independent ministers within Cabinet are simply getting on with their work.

Whoever ultimately succeeds Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael (and as Taoiseach) will inherit a somewhat dysfunctional Government; principally down to Fine Gael's own failings.

But there is some good news for Fine Gael. The Independent ministers have agendas to fulfil.

Having finally got their feet ensconced under the Cabinet table, they do not want to go anywhere. Secondly, opinion polls are shifting. Ironically, voters are switching away from Independent candidates and returning to mainstream parties, at a time when arguably Independent ministers have never been more politically productive.

Maybe Michael Fitzmaurice TD was right to stay out of the Government mix in the first place. Turf cutters unite, we truly are ungrateful sods.

Mandy Johnston is a former government press secretary

Irish Independent