Wednesday 23 October 2019

Liam Weeks: 'How the true victors of polling day went unseen'

The media made great play of the Green Party surge but Independents continue to be a pillar of politics

Mick Wallace accrued 4,000 votes in Clare, despite the county being a fair distance from his home base of Wexford. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Mick Wallace accrued 4,000 votes in Clare, despite the county being a fair distance from his home base of Wexford. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Liam Weeks

Who won last week's elections? If your diet of politics was restricted to media analysis you'd presume it was the Green Party. Copy-editors may be suffering carpal tunnel syndrome following their extensive consultation of thesauruses to describe the green wave, tsunami, rising, upheaval, and whatever metaphor you have that best captured the Green surge.

But this was for a party that finished as the sixth largest grouping in terms of seats won across the 31 city and county councils. Barely more than one in 20 voters gave the Greens a first preference. Yes, they had a better day in Europe but for now it looks like they will be sending just one MEP to Brussels.

Outside of Fine Gael, the largest cohort of Irish MEPs will be from the Independent ranks. Before the 2019 elections, the only other countries to elect Independent MEPs were Romania and Estonia.

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We are pretty exceptional in sending Independents to the European Parliament, in part due to our unusual voting system, but also because Independents have proven to be an integral part, if not pillar, of Irish politics.

Clare Daly and Mick Wallace announced their candidacies only in April yet both managed to oust sitting Sinn Fein MEPs.

While the two Independent 4 Change TDs have prominent profiles, their victories were no mean achievements in the absence of party organisations to canvass the large populations in their constituencies.

Wallace accrued 4,000 votes in Clare, for example, despite the county being a fair distance from his home base of Wexford. These victories by Independents were replicated across the local councils, placing them firmly in third place nationally, behind Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, but ahead of everyone else.

Altogether, Independents won more seats than the combined total of Sinn Fein, Labour, the Greens, Aontu, the Workers' Party and Renua.

Yet these achievements largely went unnoticed. We now take it as a given that there is an Independent politician in almost every constituency.

On Galway County Council, Independents won 11 of 39 seats, the same number as Fine Gael. In Galway city, Independents won more seats than any of the parties. In Roscommon, they went one better, winning 50pc of seats.

Independents won as many seats as Fine Gael in Dublin City Council and they're now the largest grouping in South Dublin. Independents won the most seats in Wicklow. They hold 10 seats on Meath's 40-seat council and eight of Wexford's 34 seats.

And I haven't even mentioned the Healy-Raes and the Lowry organisation.

At the last Dail election, Michael Healy-Rae's 20,378 votes in Kerry was not only the largest first preference in the country but the largest since Kevin O'Higgins and Richard Mulcahy in 1923.

Last weekend, his son, Jackie Jr, received a quota and a half on the first count in Castleisland. Jackie's first cousin, Johnny Healy-Rae, whose father Danny is also a TD, attracted more than 3,000 first preferences in Kenmare. Johnny's sister, Maura, won almost two full quotas in Killarney. Between them, the three young Healy-Raes won five quotas. Had two more family members been running, the clan could have had more seats than Sinn Fein on Kerry County Council.

Meanwhile in Tipperary, the eponymous Lowry organisation of the local TD and former Fine Gael minister comfortably won five seats on the local council. Michael Lowry's son, Micheal, topped the poll in Thurles; while John 'Rocky' McGrath was elected in Newport; Micheal O'Meara in Nenagh; with both Shane Lee and Eddie Moran winning seats in Roscrea-Templemore.

In total, Independents won over 190 of the 949 local government seats, pretty much the same as in 2014. While Independents have always fared well at local elections, that particular performance five years ago was exceptional.

Despite the repeat performance of Independents last weekend, there were no such repeat headlines this time, which goes to show how their electoral feats are taken for granted now. Imagine the media frenzy if any of Sinn Fein, Labour or the Greens had come close to winning 200 seats.

I have written before that this success of Independents is relatively unique to Ireland but it is also something of a paradox. On the one hand, the Irish electorate's tendency to vote for an alternative to a party is out of kilter with most other democracies, and indicates a potentially radical dimension to voting behaviour.

On the other hand, it also indicates an innate conservatism by voters, who prefer transferring their allegiance to an Independent over switching to a new party.

While those dissatisfied with the establishment in other countries might switch to newcomers, in Ireland they look to Independents. Shifting loyalties to a new party is too much of a crossing of the Rubicon.

Voting for an Independent instead is far less of a radical act, especially if the candidate is from the gene pool of a party close to a voter's heart.

Hence disillusioned Fine Gael supporters in Tipperary would rather vote for a Lowry candidate than a new party, and the disgruntled Fianna Failers in Kerry would prefer the Healy-Raes.

Of course, getting elected is the easy part. Doing something in office is a different matter and this is where many are critical of Independents.

Since most Independents are pretty much one-man bands, there is a school of thought they make the working of politics more difficult. Lacking a united front, it can be more problematic to achieve working majorities.

Some of this is based on past performance, when Independents were isolated maverick figures. Things have changed now, with some Independents willing to come together to achieve influence.

Shane Ross showed with his Independent Alliance what can be achieved. He and his colleagues have now been in government for three years.

No doubt some of the Independent councillors elected last week would like to replicate these achievements.

The success of Independents at the last local elections in 2014 laid the foundation for their success in 2016. There aren't many obvious reasons to believe why it will be any different next time round.

Dr Liam Weeks is a political scientist at University College Cork and author of 'Independents in Irish Party Democracy' by Manchester University Press

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