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Liam Weeks: 'Lay off independents - politics would be poorer without them'

Non-aligned politicians are an example of the openness and plurality of Irish democracy, writes Liam Weeks

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

PA

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

IT was reported last week that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had asked his Cabinet colleagues to cease their criticisms of the Independent Alliance minister Shane Ross.

The Taoiseach is concerned that such confrontation generates further news and leads to a 'back and forth' between Fine Gael ministers and the Independent Alliance, which only serves to distract from, and undermine, the work of his government.

This intervention followed a public spat between Ross and a number of Fine Gael ministers over a recent increase in morning drink-driving checkpoints.

There was concern in some ministerial quarters that this was a clampdown on rural Ireland, and would prevent some people from being able to attend Sunday Mass.

Given that this was just the latest in a series of clashes between the Fine Gael front bench and Ross, are Fine Gael's misgivings more about the man and not his measures, more about the Independent Alliance rather than its policies?

But these ministers would not be the first to be critical of independents. Similar concerns are regularly aired within the various communities of the Irish political bubble, from the other parties, the media and the chat-show commentariat.

But why? What is so wrong with independents?

Let me take you back to the last Dail election, nearly three years ago. A record number of 23 independents were elected, the same total as Sinn Fein, making independents the joint-third largest political grouping in the Dail.

With no obvious government outcome from the election, many political insiders despaired at all the independents. In 2014, the political editor of The Irish Times had forewarned of such a result, claiming that if a large number of independents were elected "that would make the formation of the next government extremely difficult, if not impossible, and plunge the country into a phase of political instability, with unknown consequences".

Ryanair's Michael O'Leary also threw in his two cents after the indecisive result, saying: "It's all very well people electing the local lunatic… but we've got to be a bit more sensible… we need some stability. You can't elect either the local popularity contest [sic] or the local lunatic.

"Ultimately, independents do nothing. Independents are grandstanders. They are not going to get into government. The worst governments we have had here are where they have been held to ransom by one or two independents."

When a Government was ultimately formed 70 days after the February election, it included independents for the first time since 1948, and it was feared these predictions would prove correct, with a general belief the Government would not see out the year.

These same concerns were voiced when former Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern formed a minority coalition with the Progressive Democrats in June 1997. Then, he had needed the initial support of three independents - Harry Blaney, Mildred Fox and Jackie Healy-Rae - with many quick to forecast a limited life expectancy for Ahern's first term in office.

But they were proved wrong, as that government lasted the full term of five years, with the independents providing the stability Ahern needed to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement and manage the growing Celtic Tiger economy.

Likewise, the current Fine Gael minority Government has not been short-lived, and will soon be entering its fourth year in office. Despite some initial teething problems with the Independent Alliance over issues such as abortion, the partnership has stabilised in office. In fact, the threats to the Government's existence and stability have not come from independents, but from internal matters within Fine Gael which led to Enda Kenny's removal, and from the rocky relationship the party has had with Fianna Fail.

So, why do we have this criticism of independents? Why did their increased popularity motivate former Labour leader Pat Rabbitte in 2014 to accuse independents of the "blatant pressing of buttons that exploit the resentment of people", and as "populism gone mad"?

Are Shane Ross and the other independents deserving of these verbal attacks?

Before you answer, think about who or what independents represent. We're talking about politicians who refuse to take the party whip, who vote according to their own conscience (or that of their constituents) rather than blindly following the wishes of a party hierarchy.

During the depths of the recession, we were told by the sage and wise that the whip was the scourge of Irish politics, preventing genuine opinions from being heard, and contributing to a dangerous mentality of groupthink.

We were told that outside matters of confidence and supply, which are crucial to the survival of a government, TDs should be allowed to vote as they choose. While the established parties chose to ignore this advice, maintaining a stranglehold on their TDs, a whip-free existence is exactly the principle that independents pursue. What is so wrong about that?

No doubt some will claim that whip-free politicians destabilise democracy. But there is limited evidence of this from the experience of independents in the Dail. And even if they did, is having politicians voting against their own principles the price we want to pay for apparent stability? If that is the case, we may as well abandon democracy altogether in favour of the stability of a dictatorship.

So, I ask again, what is wrong with independents? We're talking about politicians who maintain a direct link with their constituents, who are solely answerable to them and not to any party.

Is that so bad? Politicians are regularly reproached for being out of touch with voters, for living in their own elite bubble, far removed from the madding crowd. Independents can't do this. While some might criticise this as populism, is representing the people's wishes such a bad thing? Sure, voters may be irresponsible in their choices and unrealistic in their demands, but who are we to tell the electorate what is right for them? Again, if we wish to have a system where the best policies are implemented, not necessarily ones preferred by the people, there are better alternatives to democracy.

I'm not advocating the removal of parties from political life. They perform many essential functions, but do they need to be omnipotent? What is wrong with having some independents to challenge the cosy cartel of party rule? I'm not naive enough to think that the best TDs are the independents. Nor am I claiming that they all enhance Irish parliamentary democracy.

I'm sure many of you can name several independents you would like removed from political life, but that is more a reflection on their abilities, character and policies, not necessarily their independent status.

Rather than criticise independents, perhaps we should be cherishing them. From a democratic point of view, they are a severely endangered species as parties have eradicated them in most other political systems.

In very few countries could we have an outcome as can occur here, where someone outside the political establishment can run for office on their own, get elected to a national parliament and be able to wield some influence over government. Is that such a bad thing? Rather than condemn it as parish-pump politics, can the presence of independents not be celebrated as an example of the openness and plurality of Irish democracy?

So, before you rush to judgment on independent politicians, be careful what you wish for.

While a Dail without the Shane Rosses of this world might be appealing to some, it would signify a closed system where political office is barred to all except the tiny minority elite within parties. And Irish democracy would be all the poorer for it.

  • Dr Liam Weeks lectures in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork and is author of 'Independents in Irish Party Democracy' (Manchester UP).

Sunday Independent