Independents Special Report: From the sidelines to main stage

A wave of Independents were swept into power in the last general election. The country was in recovery mode.

Independents Special Report: From the sidelines to main stage

A wave of Independents were swept into power in the last general election. The country was in recovery mode.

Voters took a punt and backed individuals and smaller parties who promised change.

The share of TDs elected from the three main parties was the lowest ever. And the result was that non-party TDs and smaller alliances became the power-brokers.

Some 23 Independents were voted into the Dail, taking 14% of seats.

Outgoing taoiseach Enda Kenny was forced into drawn-out negotiations over 63 days with different groups of Independents before eventually a minority coalition was cobbled together with Shane Ross and the Independent Alliance and other Independent TDs.

Of course, Irish governments have a chequered history with Independents, that goes back decades.

The current coalition relies on the support at government level and from the Dáil benches of Independents.

Transport Minister Shane Ross made the reopening of Stepaside Garda Station and a new appointment system for judges priorities for the new coalition while his colleague, Disability Minister Finian McGrath, has secured commitments for a new emergency department at his local Beaumont Hospital as well as a cystic fibrosis unit.

All politics is local of course.

McGrath puts it another way, explaining how a humble independent can get parachuted from the Dáil backbenches into Cabinet.

“It is like playing in the premiership. I am like Shelbourne and have gone up to the Champions League,” he recently said.

Independent Michael Lowry, whose Dáil votes support the Fine Gael-led government, also insists he has the ear of ministers that in turn helps benefit local Tipperary services. And so this the tenet of Independents in government.

One of the most famous cases was that of Dublin Central Independent Tony Gregory.

He mastered the confidence and supply process and secured significant funds for poor areas of the city centre from Taoiseach Charles Haughey in the 1980s in return for supporting the Fianna Fáil government.

The multi-million pound ‘Gregory Deal’ is now part of Irish folklore.

Kerry’s Jackie Healy-Rae bargained on everything from schools to roads in return for supporting the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition in the late 1990s.

It was blatant parish-pump politics.

The South Kerry TD, in one of his final interviews, explained to his local radio station: “There were things that were owed to the people of this county back over the years and they were left undone — and it was high time that some fella came along… And I was very glad that I came along to do it.”

And this is how Independents in power view their obligations.

For some though, the gilded glory of government doesn’t shine that much, especially when it disappoints.

Roscommon-Galway TD Michael Fitzmaurice was a whisker away from being part of the current Fine Gael-Independent coalition when backroom negotiations were at their most fraught in the spring of 2016.

At the last minute, the TD stepped back and decided not to throw his lot in with the rabble at Government Buildings.

Looking back, he believes he made the right choice as what he wanted for rural farmers was not on the table.

“Thank God I didn’t go in. Knowing the person I am I probably wouldn’t have stuck it out except for a few months.

"The day I decided not to go in, my head was in a fuzz. But it was probably the right decision."

Fitzmaurice says there are things he was responsible for in the current programme for government promises, including for forgotten farmers and EU transport funding or TEN-T, that have still not materialised.

The rural TD adds: “This vindicates my position. I walked a lonely journey that day after weeks of talks while all the others went into government.

"But I’d made my decision. And I never regretted it.”


Tony's time

1982 Elected as a Dublin Central TD in 1982, Independent Tony Gregory came to prominence sealing the infamous ‘Gregory deal’ with then-Taoiseach Charles Haughey.

This paved the way for massive funds for impoverished city communities.

Gregory also battled against inner city drug dealing.

After his early death, his former election agent Maureen O’Sullivan was elected in his seat in 2009.

Robbo's rise

1990 As an Independent senator in the 1970s, she campaigned for the availability of contraception and the right of women on juries.

Later she joined Labour in the 1980s but was overlooked for the position of attorney general in government.

While she left the party, Labour later succeeded in asking her to run for the presidency and she was subsequently elected as the first ever female president in 1990.

She later became the UN high commissioner on human rights and also joined a campaign group of world leaders called The Elders.

Donegal mafia

1970 Elected first to the Dáil in 1948, the north Donegal man was popular in Fianna Fáil.

His supporters earned the title the ‘Donegal mafia’ and Neil Blaney went on to hold several ministerial posts under different taoisigh.

He was sacked from Jack Lynch’s government in the 1970 Arms Crisis and later in 1972 as a member of Fianna Fáil over a separate funding collection row.

Blaney then set up and ran as ‘Independent Fianna Fáil’, made up of disaffected party members from Donegal.

He went on to become an MEP and later still held his Dáil seat until his death in 1995.

Rise of the Raes

1997 Kerry’s Jackie Healy-Rae broke from Fianna Fáil prior to the 1997 elections.

Denied a chance at running for the party, he won a seat as an Independent.

And so began an era in which the publican became a linchpin in propping up governments with other Independents.

His populist approach involved delivering local roads and schools and he went on to support another two governments.

His son Michael won a seat in 2011 while his other son Danny took a place in the Dáil in 2016.

Daly's day

2011 Ejected from the Socialist Party for supporting bankrupt developer and TD Mick Wallace, Clare Daly as an Independent TD campaigned for abortion and workers’ rights but against wars, water charges, and garda corruption.

The former trade union official was a tough critic of the government and worked on campaigns with her political other-half Mick Wallace.

Both were elected as MEPs this year.

Poll topper

1990s A former Fine Gael minister, the Independent TD Michael Lowry has topped the poll in his native Tipperary in several elections.

He currently supports the Fine Gael government.

Reformer Ross

2016 A former journalist and stockbroker, Shane Ross came to prominence as a vocal critic of governments and a champion of reforms.

After becoming the longest-serving Senator, he topped the poll in Dublin South in 2011 and blazed a path as a TD with the Public Accounts Committee.

Ross then assembled the Independent Alliance-politicians with opposing views, including left-wing TD Finian McGrath, which cobbled together a government with Fine Gael.

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