Noel Whelan: In defence of Independent TDs

Independents’ purposes and objectives are more complex than the crude caricatures

Former Independent TD Jackie Healy Rae. File photograph: Peter Thursfield

Former Independent TD Jackie Healy Rae. File photograph: Peter Thursfield

 

Some are snobbish about Independents. Some look down on constituencies for electing them. They “tut, tut” about voters who vote for them.

It’s an attitude that is prevalent not only in the establishment political parties – where you would expect it – but also among political commentators and even some political scientists.

It is suggested that Independents in some way destabilise the political system or distort the allocation of resources or services.

They are derided as being interested only in constituency concerns, and as posing a threat to the orderly running of our national political affairs.

This view of Independents is simplistic and outdated. The reality of the Independent phenomenon in the Irish political system is more diverse than these generalisations.

Their purpose and objectives and the reasons they attract support are more complex then the crude caricature of them as constituency obsessives.

Independents come in all political shapes and sizes. They have, arguably, been the most effective opposition block in the current Dáil, and there will be even more of them after the election.

Heavily skewed

That’s notwithstanding the fact that our system of political funding is heavily skewed towards the parties.

It is time to stop turning noses up at Independents and to start understanding them more.

Those who disparage the “Gregory deal” and other such arrangements which Independent deputies have entered into with governments in return for support fail to recognise that a government enters into similar deals with every TD who votes for them.

The retention of support from party backbenchers in our system is built on a constant flow of representations from, and rewards to, constituencies, agreed on an ongoing basis with Ministers.

Intense localism and a distorted allocation of resources on the basis of “my constituency first” criteria is not solely a feature of deals between governments and Independents.

Anyone who doubts this need only look at the avalanche of localised announcements pumped out by Government politicians in recent days.

All are seeking to maximise their local leverage before the election campaign kicks off.

Turning the sod

This week, for example, the chief whip went out of his way to “welcome” an €8,000 heritage grant to a theatre in a local town; a Government backbencher announced that a letter of acceptance had been issued to the contractor for a new school in Cabra; and the Minister for the Environment was criticised by opponents for “turning the sod” on the site of a school in Tipperary which they allege is already half-built.

Government TDs regularly claim or imply credit for funding that the Minister for Children has given to youth services in their constituency; capital grants that the Department of Sport has given to local clubs; National Lottery grants for community initiatives in their area; recreation capital grants for local playgrounds; and even OPW funds to fight erosion in their constituencies’ coastal areas.

The systematic way Government deputies claim credit for every penny of public funding that comes into their area puts Jackie Healy Rae’s signature boasts about Cromane pier in the ha’penny place.

Independents come bearing shopping lists for their constituency but Government backbenchers and Ministers each have similar shopping lists.

We just know more in advance about the former.

When it comes to forming a majority for a government there is no reason why Independents should be viewed differently from anyone else.

In the same way, however, low ethical standards which might cause a deputy to be expelled from a political party should also put an Independent beyond the pale for deals for support.

They should be judged for their ethical standards, not their status as Independents.

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