The guys who want to take the politics out of politics
Turning now to the somewhat geeky topic of technical groups in the Dáil, I have fond memories of the launch of the so-called ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ back in 2002. Less kind commentators dubbed the 22-deputy delegation ‘Green Féin’, which ignored the contribution of Independents to the group.
Someone once described the Independent as “the guy who wants to take politics out of politics”. It’s not so, of course. The late Tony Gregory was the group’s whip and Michael Lowry was also in that loose federation. Needless to say, it was a tactical rather than an ideological arrangement.
Those who elected the 29th Dail were more generous to Independents than those who put the 30th Dail in position. In 2002, 10 Independents and the then Socialist deputy Joe Higgins (now an MEP, he’s no longer a deputy – still definitely a Socialist!) were able to band together with six Greens and five Sinn Féin members to acquire speaking rights and other privileges.
If I remember correctly the launch took place on a warm, sunny day on the plinth outside Leinster House, although when I check the record it happened in October. (I was reporting for Newstalk in those days.) The Green Party representatives were quizzed about going into a type of alliance with Sinn Fein. Again, if my memory serves me right, a smiling John Gormley, then party chairman, shrugged and said: “That’s democracy”.
But back to Independents. Finian McGrath told me recently he was “very disappointed” with the situation in relation to limited speaking time for Independents in the Chamber at the moment. If he was thinking about renewing his rainbow, McGrath could perhaps count on the four Sinn Fein deputies and maybe Gregory’s replacement, Maureen O’Sullivan. But that makes six and a technical group needs seven. Former Fianna Fail deputy Joe Behan has ruled himself out of such an arrangement. The other Independent TDs in the Dail vote routinely with the Government.
McGrath has called on Independents to “hold their nerve” following the “defection”, as he sees it, from the ranks of Independents of former Progressive Democrats TD Mae Sexton. Currently a councillor, she will contest the next General Election in Longford-Westmeath on the ticket with sitting Labour TD Willie Penrose.
The former Progressive Democrats leader Des O’Malley made a provocative contribution at an interesting event hosted by the Parliamentary Society of former Oireachtas members, which I reported on in January. Pressures of space in the newspaper prevented me from quoting much of O’Malley’s contribution at that time but I’d like to do so now.
To put his remarks in context, he argued the formation of new political parties was an essential component of a dynamic democratic system. If it became difficult to start and maintain new parties, democracy in a country would decline. The real impediment to the emergence and survival of new parties was the dispersion of public funds, which was based almost entirely on past electoral performance.
“It is significant that once Independents are elected they are quite generously looked after. Each of them is entitled to a so-called ‘party leader’s allowance’ of €41,000. They are free to employ close relatives at public expense as a further subsidy. There is no incentive to start a party, even where there are other deputies of like mind. Their constituency needs are often given priority,” O’Malley said.
And then came the killer line: “It is state-sponsored parochialism.”