ALISON O'CONNOR: Naive to think you can be in the Cabinet and be independent

Mick Wallace is one of the few TDs who does not hold regular constituency clinics. Picture: Mary Browne

They would have to take responsibility for Cabinet decisions, even those they found distasteful, writes Alison O’Connor

IT’S like the new version of an old Irish joke. When is an Independent TD not an Independent? Answer: When he has been appointed a Cabinet minister, and takes decisions that go down like a lead balloon in his own constituency.

It’s been fascinating to watch our own independent political species, of late. They have been throwing shapes since long before the general election, when they rode high in the opinion polls, and fancied themselves as kingmakers in a new political era.

What is impossible to work out, now, is how they reconcile jumping into the establishment bed with the fact that they were largely elected on an anti-establishment ticket, or, to put it more simply, a protest vote.

Will they be fish or fowl? How do they imagine their constituents will react at the ballot box next time around?

In every general election in the history of the modern Irish State, at least one Independent candidate has been returned to the Dail. At the last election, we voted for 23 of them, which is obviously a large, potentially significant number.

It wasn’t a surprise, given the signs before the election of a large protest vote, particularly against Fine Gael and Labour. But Fine Gael had viewed many of those who had indicated that they would vote Independent as relatively easily swayed — people who were fed up with the main parties, but didn’t want to vote for Sinn Fein or the PBP/AAA and who saw an Independent vote as a ‘safe’ protest. Fine Gael had hoped to win them over, but, as we saw from their disastrous election campaign, that plan didn’t work out.

The double difficulty for the independents is that, in public at least, they have to be seen to be advocating on behalf of national issues, as opposed to local ones — witness John Halligan, protesting that his desire for 24-hour cardiac care in Waterford Regional Hospital is not just for the benefit of the city, but for the entire south-east.

The simpler days, of Independents being hyper-local, just don’t cut it anymore. Then, Fine Gael go and do the dirty on the lot of them. They revealed, anonymously, of course, that, during the course of government negotiations, the Independents had a €13bn list of pork-barrel demands; or, as Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan described them, “individual vanity projects in Kerry, or elsewhere”. A considerable amount of what was suggested during those talks, according to one source, was either “illegal or unconstitutional”.

It’s a stretch to expect the type of TD who has been elected to focus on the betterment of his own constituency to behave in a statesmanlike fashion.

Of course, it would ultimately be to the betterment of our political system if all elected representatives behaved in this manner, and not in a clientilist one. But that’s not our system and the Irish voters haven’t given any indication that they want change.

There are exceptions to the rule, such as Mick Wallace, in Wexford, who apparently does not hold constituency clinics, and who does concentrate on national and international issues.

The phenomenon of the Independent has not been closely studied in Ireland, or, indeed, internationally.

One of the few academics to have done so is Liam Weeks of UCC’s Department of Government. He believes that independents could be a stabilising influence, but I don’t. Explaining their popularity here, he has written that while people in other countries register their protest votes with populist parties, we like to do it via Independent TDs.

In 2013, there were 32 elected Independent representatives in the national parliaments of the 36 leading industrial democracies. These 32 were limited, though, to just seven countries. Half of them sat in the relatively small Irish parliament.

As Dr Weeks also highlights, the more proportional the electoral system, and the more it is orientated to candidates over parties, the better the Independents are likely to fare.

Our traditional Independent TD usually got himself elected, turned up in the new Dál on the first day it met, and went on to lead a quiet parliamentary life, barring a few notable exceptions. He was seen as being more on the side of the ordinary citizen than the ranks of backbenchers who make up the main political parties.

Independents paint themselves as being more virtuous than party members, more pure, more capable of independent thought, to the betterment of their constituents.

Occasionally, things got a little complicated, but it didn’t matter, because it was always to the betterment of the constituency. The most famous example of this was the Gregory deal, brokered between Tony Gregory, of Dublin Central, and Charlie Haughey, in 1982.

A group of Independents, comprising Harry Blaney, Tom Gildea, Mildred Fox, and Jackie Healy-Rae, propped up the Fianna Fáil/PD government from 1997. Playing a good tactical game, they were cagey about what they received in return for this support, except that their packages were the envy of all other TDs. They were effectively smothered in affection by then taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and minded assiduously by his chief whip, the late Seamus Brennan.

It was an unusual situation, but didn’t affect the independence, or indeed the separateness, of the TDs. Ultimately, they were able to say that they had delivered on the home front.

What we’ve seen in recent weeks, though, is the Independents practically turning into political parties. Earlier in the month, 14 of them pulled out of negotiations, and, afterwards, got together to have a meeting. Following that meeting, they issued a signed statement. All they were missing was a party name.

While he would never admit to it publicly, it would be no surprise to anyone to hear that Shane Ross wants his political career to include a stint as a Cabinet minister, regardless of his Independent status. But it is impossible to conceive of people such as Michael Fitzmaurice or Michael Healy-Rae sitting around the Cabinet table.

Before that could happen, they would have to have been involved in negotiations, putting forward their agendas, but also agreeing a collective agenda. Following all that, they would have to stand up and take responsibility for Cabinet decisions, even those they found distasteful.

Entirely a part from posts in Cabinet, just being in a formal arrangement, such as this, means the independents cannot go running for cover as soon as the going gets tough.

In other words, really, they will no longer be independent. This may seem rather rudimentary, but, incredibly, some of them do not seem to have made this mental leap. It’s all a bit daft.

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