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Martina Devlin: Time for TDs to act in national interest

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Having waited what feels like aeons for an election, we can now expect two this year. Finally, we are being snowed under with opportunities to exercise our mandate -- although no thanks to Fianna Failed, which at times has run Ireland along near-totalitarian lines, using the economic crisis as an excuse to stifle debate.

A General Election will be held in late March and a presidential election in the autumn. By rights, three by-elections should also be called before March, but realistically they will be subsumed into the General Election.

However, legislation to ensure the writ is moved for future by-elections within a brief, specified period after seats fall vacant should be a priority of the new Dail. Democracy is too important to leave to the cynical manoeuvres of any serving Taoiseach, and Brian Cowen's failure to uphold democracy -- indeed, his attempts to thwart it -- in four constituencies are blots on his reputation. But who needs me to criticise him with Bertie Ahern out there taking potshots?

Now, in this new Dail, the 31st, there are likely to be independents -- not least because some deputies of that persuasion have been able to parlay support of the Government into a nice little revenue stream for their constituents.

Let me give you an example. Prominently featured on the home page of Tipperary North TD Michael Lowry's website is the following bulletin: "Delighted with announcement from Min for Education that additional accommodation for three North Tipp schools is on the way!" Says it all really -- even before you reach that schoolgirl exclamation mark.

I used to enjoy the fact that our political system made space for independents and that mainstream parties, with their use of the party whip to impose conformity, didn't have it all their own way. But the role of independents in the current Dail has given me pause for thought.

During the life span of this Government, we have witnessed the power of certain unaffiliated deputies waxing disproportionately, and risk becoming a threat to democracy.

At their best, they offer a voice of dissent beyond the official opposition, which can tend towards the cosy. For example, Fine Gael went along with the bank guarantee, although Labour did not.

At their worst, independents can be in a position to shake down the State by insisting on elevating county above country -- as we see continually with those Backwoods Boys, Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae. Their ability to rack up spoils incentivises voters to award them first preferences, but goodies for Tipperary North and Kerry South are not necessarily gains for democracy.

If anything has been learned from events of the past decade, it's that gombeen politics are a recipe for disaster. As Joseph Campbell wrote in his poem 'The Gombeen Man', "The gombeen like a spider sits,/Surfeited." But his glut comes at the expense of others.

With an administration hanging by a thread, Lowry and Healy-Rae's demands ate into the spending power of a financially impoverished coalition. As another election looms, we need to examine whether it's appropriate for small-time politicians with their lopsided shopping lists to continue exerting an unequal, undeserved and unhealthy influence on national politics.

How can it be fair, desirable or democratic for taxpayers in some constituencies to suffer cutbacks, while taxpayers in a neighbouring electoral area receive preferential treatment?

National politics should introduce policies which deal with the State as an entity, rather than prioritising one road, hospital or school over another in the interests of keeping a deputy on side.

However, whether we like it or not, TDs are under no obligation to act in the national interest. That's a government's job. So we must look at whether independents can be allowed to continue propping up governments; whether their votes can be bought so flagrantly. This is a valid cause for concern when we don't know the price of their support -- just that one will be extracted.

Airwaves and newspapers are congested with people of various political hues urging a remodelling of the body politic. But which party is proposing reforms to ensure the squeeze can't be put on an entire Budget by two politicians from among 166?

I am not opposed to independents per se: after all, the largest party in the State, Fianna Failed, has ravaged it. Some independents have done, and continue to do, a fine job.

But I do note that independents rarely tend to have much in the way of national policies -- generally their focus is local -- whereas political parties set out clear manifestos. Nobody expects everything in a manifesto to be implemented but at least it offers an insight into a party's direction and beliefs.

Four independents facilitated the formation of the present Dail in 2007: Lowry, Healy-Rae, Beverley Flynn -- later readmitted to the Fianna Failed fold -- and Finian McGrath. Unusually, McGrath went public on the details of his agreement with Bertie Ahern, but the trend has been for secret deals. Public trust in the political system is already low, for a range of reasons which include those hush-hush arrangements.

Finally, I wonder if we might consider running the presidential election at the same time as the General Election to save money. I understand this would mean a prolonged period as heir apparent, until President McAleese steps down towards the end of the year, but other bodies and professions often nominate a successor in good time.

It would mean a Constitutional tweak, but anything that economises on spending and makes sound sense has to be up for consideration in 2011.

Irish Independent