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Independents… June 4, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

I always find it difficult to believe reading Tom McGurk that he’s not a man who is possessed of passing political enthusiasms. For example, in the SBP the week before the elections he wrote about the Independents, and he argued that close to 40% would vote at the election for independents of ‘minority’ parties. Unfortunately they didn’t get 40% of the vote, closer to 30%, but be that as it may, Independents/Others did extremely well.

Actually, I could end this post right there, because if he’s getting that figure wrong then it calls into question everything else he writes, but let’s persist anyhow.

He continues:

Any historic examination of our path to financial disaster can only point up the central role of the traditional party system’s structure in creating the disaster. One of the principal problems is that once elected – especially with an overall majority – the party itself becomes like a government within a government. It’s the demands of the party first and those of everyone else afterwards.

And yet, let’s also note that similar events happened in other states. Perhaps other parties there were as responsible, but… just perhaps it’s a broader systemic problem, say with the nature of the interfaces between government and economy and society. Perhaps it’s something to do with ideology, something about the nature of the relationship between state and commerce? Perhaps it has much less to do with the party system, so much as the nature of the parties involved at government level in that system?
He goes on:

In effect, to stay in line with so-called party discipline, the vast majority of elected members are reduced by the system to mere nodding dogs.

And by contrast he paints a picture of a utopia, of sorts:

Any attempt to reshape our politics actually needs to find a method of escaping the dead hand of the traditional political party. We need to create an approach that can encourage the brightest and the best, bring in the talents of the independents and open up our political closed-shop to the many who have been driven to bitter detachment or utter disillusionment.
Imagine for a moment what would happen if the intellectual and political skills of independents of the calibre of say, Shane Ross or John Crown or Stephen Donnelly could be brought to a government? Why for example when administrations are being put together are independents treated as second-class citizens, or political filler to close up the holes? Are the democratic mandates of those outside the party political system somehow second class?

Yeah, just imagine.

Anyhow, he continues – why not rethink the assumption about parties. Indeed he’s really pushing the envelope, and apparently thinking about bypassing even a democratic mandate…

Legislative change to allow non-elected talent into government would be another ambition as would the expanded use of Dáil committees to monitor the spending of public money. In other words, there would be a commitment to a policy of radical political reform that would seek to eliminate the failures that are endemic in the current system. In advance of an election, a group of interested and potential independents would agree this “new politics” agenda and then contest the election not as a single political party but rather as a political coalition: in effect under the banner of an Independent Alliance.


Some might be household names but others would be new faces. In this way the integrity of the independence of many would be maintained – but now with the strength in numbers that our parliamentary voting system requires, potentially they could be part of a coalition administration.

Isn’t it interesting how close all this seems to the latest stuff emanating from the Reform Alliance. One wonders if he was tipped off about the latest ‘developments’?

Frankly, I’d deeply sceptical about all this. I can see the utility in parties working with Independents, and those of like minds being brought into administrations, but… as noted yesterday there seems to me to be a contradiction in the very concept of an Independent Alliance in that it in and of itself begins to pull ‘independents’ into a congress of sorts.
All this also ignores the fact that political parties are already in and of themselves coalitions of sorts. And the larger the party the greater the ideological and other spread.

Moreover, it is hard to see why he thinks any of this would in and of itself be an improvement on the status quo ante or how it would prevent another crisis occurring.

I’m not even sure there is a ‘problem’ with Irish politics in the sense that is argued by McGurk. The response to the crisis, and the policies that led to it, weren’t specifically indigenous. They were shaped by European and global dynamics, both political and economic. They were, let’s be clear, shaped by ideology, and an ideology of the right. One where markets were allowed to do pretty much as they saw fit and governments shifted to light touch and no touch regulation. In this polity, granted, there were unique twists, built upon decades, perhaps a century, of a certain sort of economic approach, but fundamentally the issue was one of Irish politicians and political parties acquiescing with broader dynamics.

In a way, and this is banal because it has been true so long, it is down not to the structure of Irish politics, as much as the lack of differentiation or alternative in relation to approaches to governance. And even where, as with the Labour party which fairly cosmetically and rhetorically sought to position itself in opposition to what had taken place, in government did entirely the opposite.

In other words the problem is that political vehicles become more and more constrained the closer they are to achieving and exercising power. And that suggests, and more than suggests, that some genuine ideological and political difference is required, something that – yes – offers a real divide and in truth that divide is most likely to occur on left/right grounds. For all the talk about the ‘death of ideology’ or the post-socialist period, it is telling how elsewhere in Europe such differentiation remains extant. And indeed differentiation on both left and right too in many instances.

This, by the way, isn’t to suggest there’s a problem with independents, or ‘minor’ parties as such. And indeed, one can see the foci of future political division of left and right growing from precisely that sector, perhaps in tandem with SF, perhaps not. But it is to suggest that something a lot more rigorous than what McGurk suggests is necessary and something a lot more clearly positioned in ideological terms as being left of centre, something that can work with larger left of centre forces, or not – as the case may be.

And finally, for now, of course, for all the hand-wringing about the political party being over, one must note that the election results this weekend still saw political parties of all sizes return significant numbers of Cllrs and MEPs. That’s just the way of it. We’ve seen bursts of enthusiasm for Independents before, we’ll see it again, and we’ll also (I suspect) see the opposite.


1. Nessa Childers MEP (@NChildersMEP) - June 4, 2014

And may I point out, very wearily, that Independent MEPS have a different mandate from TDs.


WorldbyStorm - June 4, 2014

That’s true.


2. benmadigan - June 4, 2014

personal curiosity in this question – gossip, backgrounding- irish-style, call it what you will but , , , ,
was tom mcgurk a member of peoples democracy in queens university belfast in the late 1960s?


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