Tuesday 16 July 2019

Independent TDs are losing their way in a fog of self-importance

Stephen Donnelly TD
Stephen Donnelly TD

Liam Fay

It's all about the odds. Having crunched the projected numbers and weighed up the central figures, Stephen Donnelly has clearly made a hard-headed calculation: his best bet is to remain odd man out.

The Wicklow deputy caused a big upset last week with his announcement that he will not be joining the proposed alliance of independent TDs championed by Shane Ross and Michael Fitzmaurice.

The upset was most keenly felt by senior members of the alliance. Only days earlier, after all, Donnelly had accompanied Ross on a glad-handing tour of Meath, encouraging independent councillors to sign up to the cause. There is barely-concealed dismay among the allies that their erstwhile recruiting sergeant has turned renegade.

Sources within the alliance suggest that Donnelly was "uncomfortable" with the direction which the fledgling group has been taking since the rise with its ranks of Fitzmaurice, the Roscommon-South Leitrim TD. Differences of opinion about which issues the alliance should prioritise have been hinted at. But Fitzmaurice rejects this theory as a "myth". He and other key protagonists deny that Donnelly fell out with the alliance over policy matters, insisting that serious discussion about the detail of a policy platform hasn't even started yet.

Speculation about the motives behind Donnelly's withdrawal was enflamed rather than reduced by the statement which accompanied his announcement. Donnelly expressed his support for any endeavour which poses a "challenge to the stale cartel that is Irish politics".

However, he argued that the Ross/Fitzmaurice alliance was not sufficiently cohesive for his liking, as he wants to be involved in a bloc which is ready and able to negotiate and implement a credible programme for government. Speaking on Prime Time recently, Ross asserted that his group may remain outside of cabinet if it held the balance of power after the next election.

Donnelly ruled out joining Lucinda Creighton's as-yet-untitled party but intimated that he might align himself with one of the multiple other mooted groupings, pledging that he would "continue to explore the possibilities for a new political movement".

In response, an evidently stung Ross questioned whether Donnelly has the stomach for the "uprooting of Irish politics" to which he maintains he and his confederates are committed. "Maybe (Donnelly) thought it was going in a direction that was too loose for him, too radical for him," sniffed Ross.

Politics among the independents is beginning to sound like a particularly unpleasant domestic row. There are snubs, sulks and strops; shrill recriminations and coded rebukes. Hurt feelings are loudly vented. Even in the early days of what's set to be a 16-month election campaign, the incessant histrionics have already started to grate.

Independent TDs and aspiring members of independent alliances would be foolish to assume that public patience with them is endless. Politicians are held in low esteem for good reason and nobody is blind to the fact that the individuals caught up in these petty intrigues are, above all else, politicians. For as long as they represent an alternative to the status quo, independents will get a fair wind. If they lose the run of themselves, however, the climate won't be long in turning foul.

One of the reasons 2014 was such a disastrous year for the Fine Gael/Labour coalition was the extent to which its conduct - and misconduct - substantiated the growing impression of an administration that was more preoccupied with internal affairs than the business of the people.

Scandals about cronyism, jobbery and the overzealous advancement of party advantage caused deep and lasting damage. A similar fog of self-regard and self-importance has apparently descended on much of the independent benches, and it seems to be playing havoc with the ability of some deputies to discern where they're going and why they want to get there.

Given the depth of the electorate's disenchantment with the mainstream parties, alliances between like-minded independents make sense. Getting the negotiations right is obviously important but the endless soap opera about alliances and new parties has grown tiresome. By attempting to tease the public with the twists and turns of their cliquish politicking, some independents are making the same mistake which has proven so costly for the establishment parties. They are pursuing a dissolute form of politics that is all about them rather than us.

Politics everywhere is discussed in terms of sporting analogies, as commentators seek to elucidate parliamentary democracy by likening it to a game with winners and losers, decisive scores and own-goals. In the US, however, political journalists have developed an especially eloquent repertoire of sports metaphors.

Any Washington discourse which excludes the general public is dismissed as "inside baseball", implying that even the ordinary Joe in the stands wouldn't understand or care about its machinations, let alone the non-spectating populace. There is a distinct air of "inside baseball" about what's going on among the assorted opposition alliances right now, and it's a sport that holds zero appeal for the majority of citizens.

In their eagerness to establish political clubs in which they feel comfortable, the independents seem to have forgotten that an increase in the number of clubby, comfy politicians is precisely what most voters are determined to avoid.

 

Get ready to ramble

If she ever tires of showbiz, Senator Catherine Noone could have a bright future in mixed martial arts. The Fine Gael blusterer made a spectacular exhibition of herself this week with her opportunistic, ill-informed and quickly retracted call for an Irish ban on Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events. Despite the foolhardiness of her intervention, however, one could almost admire the agility of its execution. The ease with which she put her foot in her mouth demonstrated formidable fitness while the speed of her U-turn revealed absolute mastery of defensive technique.

Noone is by no means the only headline-chasing shape-thrower in Leinster House but she is fast becoming a black belt in contrived controversy. Calling for bans is her stock-in-trade; last summer, she demanded a crackdown on ice cream vans.

Noone attempted to explain her position on what she termed the "vile so-called sport" of mixed martial artists in an interview with 2fm's Ryan Tubridy - although, in truth, the words 'explain' and 'position' are far too grandiose for the ditzy babble to which listeners were subjected. It soon became evident that she knew virtually nothing about UFC or combat sports in general, and she eventually admitted as much. Within hours of the interview, she backtracked on her call for a ban and promised to educate herself about martial arts.

Freedom of expression has been presented as a priority concern for the political class in recent days, and we've heard some astonishing claptrap from government bigwigs about the depth of their commitment to robust public debate. Free speech is a lovely idea and maybe one day it will become a reality in this country - but, in the meantime, it would be nice if we could rely on even the most publicity-hungry politicians to deliver a more modest proposition: intelligent speech.

In political argument, as in all forms of hard grappling, deploying the brain should be a basic skill.

 

PS

Micheál Martin seems to believe he's history. The Fianna Fail leader has vigorously rebuffed invitations to visit memory lane in the wake of controversies arising from RTÉ's drama about Charlie Haughey and his goon squad.

Asked if he regretted voting to expel Des O'Malley from Fianna Fáil (because of O'Malley's opposition to Haughey) Martin developed a sudden interest in academic publishing. "That's for the history books," he insisted.

Deferring to 'the verdict of history' is a diversionary tactic beloved by politicians who can't or won't explain their behaviour. It is especially favoured by has-beens but Martin is a contemporary player with designs on Ireland's future. His assessment of whether he was right to support O'Malley's expulsion isn't up to historians; it's up to Martin himself.

In reality, we don't have to wait for the history books. Martin's equivocation already speaks volumes.

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