Ross’s election bid may signal the dawn of a new independents day

THE arrival of Shane Ross, journalist, author and senator, into the general election campaign, seeking a Dáil seat in George Lee’s old constituency of Dublin South, is not just significant in itself: it could lead to other similarly minded individuals pitching themselves to the electorate, offering themselves as new legislators to add to the public voices they already use.

Already, Paul Somerville, a financial markets participant who has sprung to prominence as a commentator on various radio and television programmes, has followed suit, offering himself to the electorate of Dublin South East. More might follow: there is considerable speculation that David McWilliams, the popular economist, could be persuaded to offer himself to the voters of Dun Laoighaire. You would be hard pressed to imagine him not winning.

Ross’s decision to enter the race is fascinating. Ross is not short of opportunity to make his views known without having to go to the Dáil to do so. He has a weekly column in The Sunday Independent where he is business editor. He appears regularly on broadcast media (including my own radio show where we regard him as credible as well as provocative).

He has written two bestselling books in recent years, emphasising the regard in which he is held by the general public. His contributions to the Seanad are of the highest order which is why they tend to be chosen for broadcast in news bulletins or Oireachtas Report more regularly than those of many of his colleagues.

His decision to stand as an independent is interesting, however. He could have joined a political party — Fine Gael wanted him and indeed he stood for the party in Wicklow back in 1992 — but instead rejected approaches.

This means that he will not benefit from a ready supply of committed party activists to canvass votes for him during the election campaign. He will have to depend on his media profile to bring him to the public attention. He is likely to get that. The press photographers and tv cameras are likely to be present when, as is most likely will happen, he brings his best friend Eamon Dunphy out on the canvass with him.

Ross is not guaranteed to win a seat. He has picked a constituency where he may suffer a George Lee backlash where voters, annoyed that their last celebrity candidate left them high and dry before even a year was out. Ross does not regard himself as a celebrity candidate, however, and he is right. He has an established track record within the Seanad, a long-standing interest in politics.

But the Seanad is different to the Dáil in one important respect: it is a true speaking chamber, a skill at which Ross excels. The Dáil is wholly different in the way it operates. As an independent, Ross’s time to speak would be very limited indeed, especially on the major economic issues that would be of most interest to him.

Ross anticipates becoming a member of what is called a “technical group“, whereby he and other independents would band together, with small political parties if need be, to claim the right to speaking time. How workable this would be as a solution remains to be seen too.

However, Ross has advantages of profile that other similarly minded individuals of what might be loosely called the right don’t enjoy, with the obvious exception of McWilliams should he run.

For example, Somerville has been very impressive in his media contributions but he faces an uphill battle in letting potential voters know enough about him to get elected.

Ross might also be disappointed if he is only one of a few independents in the Dáil because they might not be in a position to form a speaking group at all. At present the independents are benefiting from the construction of a relationship with Sinn Féin, a party which needs them because of its own insufficient numbers. That is likely to change after the next election when Sinn Féin is more than likely to have enough numbers to need not share with anyone else.

It will also be interesting to see just how popular independents prove to be in the forthcoming election. Independents tend to get a bad press outside of the constituencies they represent. They are seen there as the ultimate in local issue representatives, who hold the rest of the country to ransom on behalf of their voters. But those who elect them may not care too much about that. Their representatives can make hay if they are lucky enough to have been elected at a time when the balance of power between the elected parties is in doubt.

Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy Rae in the present Dáil have exploited this particularly, cutting secret deals with Bertie Ahern, subsequently honoured by Brian Cowen, that conferred financial benefits on their constituents with your money, whether you wanted that or not or whether the State could afford it. Finian McGrath at least had the good sense to tear up his deal when he found the government was slow to honour it, and to disclose details of it publicly, but you still have to ask about the national propriety of his entering one in the first place.

But if the independents don’t hold the balance of power then what is their point? It would seem that their role then becomes one of super-councillor, of being known within the constituency to hold many clinics, to get small things done on behalf of voters by working hard on their behalf. It is how the late Tony Gregory, for example, held his seat in Dublin Central for many years. It is very hard to imagine Ross, McWilliams, Somerville or anyone else of their ilk being satisfied with that.

Indeed, Ross has said that he will not engage in that behaviour at all. He is right to do so because too much of our politics is bedevilled by clientilism rather than legislating but he may find himself very frustrated unless there is dramatic reform of the way the Dáil does its business and the role for non-government TDs within it.

However, there is another possible scenario here. The expectation up until now has been that many of the independents who may reach the next Dáil will be of the left-leaning variety and that they would not support any government, being determined instead to show opposition to any government that has a right or centrist majority. But let’s imagine that Fine Gael benefits most from the collapse in the Fianna Fáil vote.

An overall majority seems almost impossible — mainly because it does not have the required support in Dublin to capitalise on the Fianna Fáil implosion — but the likes of Ross could end up as proxy Fine Gael candidates, even if they would not like to see themselves that way.

So let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that Fine Gael ends up with something like mid-70 seats, a historic high for it. Instead of forming a coalition with Labour maybe it could persuade the likes of Ross, Lowry, the new Healy-Rae Michael, if elected, and others, to give their support to a Fine Gael administration.

There’s an incentive for people like Ross who prefer the solution to our economic woes to be along the lines of spending cuts rather than tax increases.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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