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Speaking about the Independents of the left… January 12, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
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The Irish Times has been looking at the various parts of the Opposition this week, start of the new year and all that, and it’s an interesting exercise. Mind you it goes as follows with the Independents yesterday when Harry McGee argues that:

AS A rule of thumb, the number of Independent TDs in the Dáil increases at times of political volatility. With uncertainty there is a tendency towards fragmentation, with voters deserting traditional parties to plump for candidates who are more local or more radical.

That’s some rule of thumb. While it is true that the largest contemporary cohort of Independents was seen this last election, by contrast the second largest in was in that year of relative political calm, 2002. And in the 1980s and early 1990s, a period of genuine upheaval, only a handful were returned. 4 in the first election in 1982, 3 the following election that year and all of 3 in 1987, the year the PDs ‘broke the mould’. Which perhaps makes the following statement more telling than it might otherwise be.

History has shown, from the Tony Gregory deal in 1981, that at critical junctures a small number of deputies can wield massive influence. Mostly it has been individual TDs (Jim Kemmy and children’s shoes for example) or a small cluster (the four TDs who forged the deal with the 1997 coalition– Jackie Healy-Rae, Tom Gildea, Mildred Fox and Harry Blaney). Invariably, these TDs have been lucky enough to hold the balance of power. Conversely, when there have been greater numbers of Independents (there were 13 elected in 2002) they have tended to have held less sway. Indeed most of those elected in 2002 lost their seats in the subsequent general election.

That’s true. But of course the situation is starkly different today. Consider the numbers:

However, from within the present group of 19 TDs elected as Independents and from minor parties has emerged a grouping with a cohesion that has given the two Opposition parties, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil, a run for their money. The technical group is made up of 16 TDs with Finian McGrath as chairman and Catherine Murphy as whip.

And that in mind it is intriguing to consider how the numbers of Independents have increased. Some, such as Denis Naughten, once of Fine Gael, are now outright Independents. Others such as Willie Penrose seem to exist in a limbo, not quite detached from their original party. Nulty and Broughan seem to be tilting away from Labour but how far they go remains to be seen. But what’s particularly noticeable about this is how there’s now a significant group left of Labour and right of the ULA in the Dáil on the Independent benches.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair. There’s also a good degree of cross-over with the ULA. Look at who crops up on various campaigns driven by the ULA constituent elements and it is indeed some of the number of Independents. But as a body it seems reasonable, short of any of their number joining the ULA, to consider them.

We know that at the last election Wallace, Halligan, McGrath, O’Sullivan, Pringle and Murphy represented that sort of a territory in their profile, albeit in no sense working as a unitary entity with each other. But it’s fair to say that their voting patterns subsequently have been more or less of a piece [although with one or two striking discrepancies]. Ming Flanagan orbits in this area, but is less clearly explicitly left-wing and therefore perhaps more sensibly regarded as being a sometime fellow traveller on some but not all issues.

With the potential arrival of Nulty, and perhaps Broughan, that would see the numbers of left of Labour TDs hit the seven or eight mark. That’s no small number and if they were persuaded of the advantage of working more clearly together it might well provide a stronger voice. They might do well to reflect upon the point that if the ULA does manage to streamline its approach into a more consistent voice [and this blog has been strongly supportive of the ULA doing precisely that and remains so] then the chances of them being squeezed between them and the significant SF presence, or perhaps even the smaller but vocal right wing independents will be strong.

But one can see the opposite dynamic as likely, that the leftish/leftist Independents will continue to operate within the too broad umbrella of the Technical Group, a group which has no political identity at all [and is not intended to either] and eschew any efforts to forge even diffuse but useful links. One point that’s useful to keep in mind is that I understand that it is inadmissible under Oireachtas rules to have two competing Technical Groups, so there is no option for any of the groups within the current TG to detach and attempt to rework it into a rival group.

That’s all fine, but it’s not that a party structure is either feasible or appropriate. These are Independent TDs after all. But some sort of clearer national identity would be to their benefit [not least in cuing up potential PR problems and when and when not to go on radio or television for interviews] and put blue water between them and the overtly localist Independent TDs.

But is this at all likely? The thing with Independents, left, right and centre, is that they tend to be independent, and sometimes that’s too much of a good thing. Free of party strictures there are much fewer checks upon them, and also, almost inevitably, a sense that they are where they are precisely because they’ve navigated themselves away from party affiliation. It is the resultant tension that is likely to scupper any even quite nebulous formations evolving from this seven or eight TDs, however much some of them might like it and however useful it might be.

Of course all this is predicated both on these leftish TDs deciding to organise in this way, and indeed that the LP apostates might come across to them. The latter is by no means certain either. There’s every likelihood that the former LP TDs will remain apart from the LP but not that distinct from it. That said they might do well to reflect on the gloomy historical example that former FF TD Joe Behan provided when he jumped ship from FF and then voted with the then Government in the final days of the their administration, subsequently losing his seat.

This may be of more importance than it might seem. SF has carved out a strong presence in the Dáil. Fianna Fáil is fading, and the ULA holds as yet undelivered promise [more on this next week]. But if the latter should cohere, or if FF should up its game then this might leave the Independents, and particularly the left Independents particularly isolated. And as always the danger – from their perspective – is in waiting while others make the running.

***

More broadly what of Independent fortunes in general? Llooking at the polling data, at 15% in the Sunday Times poll and the recent SBP poll, which is nigh on their Election figure earlier this year, the Independents continue to do remarkably well almost a year into this Dáil. The chances that their current numbers will be matched or – perhaps, on a very good day – exceeded remain strong. Even if there’s a dip they could reasonably expect to see their numbers remain in double digits. And there’s another factor at play here. In the past Independents were swamped by the larger parties. No longer.

The current dispensation in the Dáil with three competing groups of roughly similar sizes, FF, SF and Independents gives the latter a prominence that was but a dream for Tony Gregory et al. They may not speak to national issues – though in truth listen in on many Oireachtas debates and national issues are pushed to the front and centre of the discussion, but they’ve got a national profile. But perhaps that assessment could be finessed. Some of them have a national profile. Norris, and Flanagan most obviously, both distinctive for differing reasons. Halligan will be better known this week than last. McGrath, perhaps. But after that one wonders. All that said there will be those amongst them who will argue that national profiles are all very well, but what use are they when the real combat takes place at constituency level? And there’s something in that, not least because unlike TDs in parties there’s not one, or almost none, who have a sniff of potentially being in government in the future.

How this pans out in terms of seats retained remains to be seen. Some have proved remarkably tenacious in the past. So any thoughts on individual constituencies would be welcome. Certainly some will have problems returning. But regardless, at this point the Independents, of whatever stripe, appear likely to be a much more significant component of Irish political life than any of us might have been expected even two or three years ago.

Comments»

1. United Left Alliance TD’s, part of the Dáil Technical Group – Irish Times Review « Tomás Ó Flatharta - January 12, 2012
2. tomasoflatharta - January 12, 2012
3. Jim Monaghan - January 13, 2012

Why do they want to be independent. If you want to represent the people you should have an alternative government in mind. Otherwise you are into bargaining a la McGrath. Trying to reverse the odd cut or in reality like the Labour backbenchjers substitute one cut for another.
SF and Ula have an alternative government in mind. Alas, I feel that SF see coalition as a stage, where I see it as the burial of left hopes just like Labour did.
SF are the other alternative. But in leaving any door open to coalition with the right, they risk becoming a new Labour Party
ULA, warts and all, are the alternative. Not ideal. In many ways not as advanced as the SLP of Browne and Merrigan. It could fail, it has fault lines. In my opinion , the only show in towm. It is a process in formation. Those open to change. It is necessary for serious left TDs to engage with it and for the other parties and grouiplets on the elft to do likewise.
The challenge is to create a national left capable of leading a real resistance. The “occupy” movement has failed to do so because in part of its lack of coherence. If we want a Greek style fightback people and grouips should engage in the ULA process.

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