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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 5, 2010 @ 2:25 am

    The guys who want to take the politics out of politics

    Mary Minihan

    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.”

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Yet again Des O’Malley is being used as a moral example – the evidence to justify using him is pretty weak indeed – at many times during his career Mr O’Malley had the chance to do the right thing and failed. It’s a trait his daughter seems to have inherited too.

      Bottom linei s we get the politicians we want because we elect them and continue to reelect them knowing full well the sort of person they are – the problem is that our politicians are a reflection of us as a people – it’s not a pretty picture.

    • Jim O'Donnell says:

      I thought Finian McGrath was one of the block of independents who have a deal with FF/Greens to support the government?


    • Joanna Tuffy says:

      According to an Irish Times report last week, the DPP, James Hamilton, argues the opposite to Des O’Malley. He argues that political corruption won’t be eliminated “so long as the private financing of political parties is permitted”, And interestingly, the Irish Times editorial this morning extols the James Hamiliton viewpoint.

      The answer is to limit the expenditure in elections by candidates and parties, and to eliminate, in so far as possible the loopholes that allow parties and candidates to get around those limits. The disclosure of donations and expenditure legislation initially introduced by Labour is important too and has made a difference I believe. There is less of a grey space for politicians to get lost in thanks to those pieces of legislation.

      Expenditure limits in elections are a great leveller. If parties and candidates are restricted in how much they can spend, by rules or by necessity, they spend their money more carefully than if there is a free for all. There is a huge amount of money still wasted in elections and money is spent on things that end up having diminishing returns. Candidates can and do get elected by the power of one to one persuasion at the door, their reputations in their community and imaginative and creative campaigns, as opposed to expensive ones. Many candidates that have spent a fortune on elections have failed to be elected.

      The Party Des O’Malley founded , the Progressive Democrats, agreed to increase election expenditure limits substantially when they were in Government with Fianna Fail, thereby undoing some of the pitch levelling, on their watch.

    • Tom Cosgrave says:

      I would agree with Joanna.
      Incidentally, I seem to recall Mary Minihan leaving Newstalk in order to work for the Progressive Democrats. Perhaps she could confirm if this is the case?

    • mary says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for your message. I did indeed work for the PDs as a press officer although that wasn’t why I left Newstalk – there was a gap in between! All the best, Mary

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Perhaps the best way to tackle political funding is to make it the law that every single penny received by political parties and repes and what they spend is published with receipts to the penny – there is no reason for anyone who gives money to a party or politician to keep it a secret and none of them do it out of a desire to support the democratic process – they do it to get access.

    • Tom Cosgrave says:

      Thanks for that Mary.
      Incidentally – any chance of a Volume 2 of Dáil Spats? Hilarious stuff!

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