Rise of the Others

In last weekend’s elections, Independents, small alliances and anti-austerity groups were the big winners, polling more than 40 per cent in some areas. Was it a midterm protest vote or is the political party over?

Sat, May 31, 2014, 01:00

As incoherence and incompetence aligned as targets, the citizens took their first proper stab at an anti-party election as a myriad of Independents, sensing that anyone was in with a chance, hurled themselves into the fray.

Some party people sniffed the air and adopted the time-honoured ruse of minimising party links on the posters. The big trick was to appear to be an Independent. The outstanding proponent was the poll-topping semi-sole trader Brian Crowley, whose European election posters put the Fianna Fáil logo on the back.

And so it came to pass that the category marked “Others”, which included small parties and alliances such as the Greens, People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance, accumulated an enormous vote.

At local level, Galway city recorded 44 per cent. Wicklow yielded 41 per cent. Across the four Dublin constituencies, the average was 35 per cent. In Donegal, Kerry, Offaly, Roscommon, Tipperary and Waterford, it was at least 30 per cent. (The lowest Others vote was in the Border counties of Cavan, at 4 per cent, and Monaghan, at 13 per cent.)

In the European elections, Others garnered 40 per cent (and that excludes Crowley’s semi-independent avalanche). In the Dublin West byelection, they took nearly 44 per cent; in Longford-Westmeath, it was more than a third.

The surest way to rile Ming Flanagan this week was to suggest that he was the beneficiary of a protest vote and that tough times are always kind to alternative candidates. He holds that they are more reflective than that. Whatever they intended, notice was served of something seismic happening for party politics.

Protest era “We are in an era of protest,” sa

ys Jane Suiter, the journalist turned Dublin City University political scientist. “The whole party system is in for massive change. Everyone was saying that 2011 was an earthquake election, but we haven’t seen the beginning of that. That election still left the three main parties in play, all of them old-established constitutional parties. What’s happening now is that we are following the rest of Europe into different patterns.”

If the Tony Blair-style plan of staging a joyous, timely pre-2016 recovery fails to fire, and these figures feed into the general election, what happens next is anyone’s guess. There is no template. Our open electoral system means we have no parallel in Europe, where Independents are the rarest of breeds because the requirements around election percentages virtually bar them from trying.

At one level the map is there. With the emergence of the Dáil technical group, the current crop of Independent TDs is carving out its own space in national policies. Ming Flanagan is very proud of its pivotal role in the Government’s concession of a police authority, for example.

This week a new kind of alliance seemed to beckon as Diarmuid O’Flynn – @Ballyhea14 – tweeted Ming and Childers, among others, to “stand with us”. David Hall, the Independent who polled a decent vote in Dublin West, responded with a suggestion to meet for coffee. But where to after that?

In an Independent-heavy parliament, the logical next step would be for such a group to demand a ministry or two in return for a bloc vote. But this would require serious unity of purpose and values, and already that unity has been revealed to be a delicate flower with the splintering triggered by Mick Wallace’s VAT revelations.

And if Independents are perceived to merge into the system – “always above there in Dublin” – how will that work with their supporters? Donning the local jersey – even for taoisigh, as Enda Kenny has discovered – is regarded as a TD’s first duty; that and relentless 24/7 visibility while bringing home the bacon.

Above all, how would it work for the citizens if the Dáil consisted of at least 30 per cent Independents?

“While many hate the whip system, it does mean that a party can put out a manifesto” and require its members to abide by that, says Suiter. “Independents are working on different deals, which is fine for those in their immediate areas but makes little sense to those who are interested in good governance.”

Taking a party wipe-out to its logical conclusion, how would 166 Independents with fast-shifting alliances, standards and values agree on any kind of a platform?

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