Stephen Collins: Donnelly move shows futility of being an Independent
‘Oppositionist’ TDs are in electoral danger if they get serious about trying to govern
Joining Fianna Fáil: Stephen Donnelly with party leader Micheál Martin last week. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The TD is aghast at the barrage of abuse that has greeted his move to Fianna Fáil, but the mystery is how he could ever have expected anything else.
It doesn’t say much for his political antennae that after fighting and winning two general elections and serving six years in the Dáil, it came as a surprise to him that his decision to join Fianna Fáil was going to provoke a hostile response. Maybe that is because Independents are largely cosseted from the rough and tumble that party politicians have to endure from the media and the public as a fact of political life.
At the very least, Donnelly should have expected that his past criticisms of Fianna Fáil would be thrown back in his face, particularly after his earlier ill-fated venture into party politics as a member of the Social Democrats.
Donnelly’s critics appear to be equally removed from the reality of the choices facing politicians and in thrall to the notion that Independents are in some way morally superior to the TDs representing political parties.
The record number of Independents elected to the current Dáil a year ago reflected a widespread public distrust of politicians from the mainstream parties. This was part of the same anti-politician and anti- system mood across the democratic world that led to the vote for Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
It is not entirely new. The Irish politician and writer Tom Kettle remarked more than a century ago that politics is the only walk of life in which the public thinks that an amateur will do a better job than a professional.
The wildly erratic performance of President Trump is a stunning example of how dangerous that belief can be. To be fair to the raft of Independents elected to the 32nd Dáil, none of them promoted the kind of dangerous and hate-filled rhetoric employed by Trump. Nonetheless, the election of so many of them has left the country in a novel position, with the Dáil unable to provide the country with a majority government.
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If the decision of Donnelly to throw in his lot with Fianna Fáil does nothing else, it might prompt a reality check for the political system and the electorate, and provide an insight into the hard choices faced by all TDs who aspire to be in government so as to do their best for the country.
Independents thrive on the notion that the government of the day is always wrong, but they are under no obligation to come up with realistic solutions.
During the talks on the formation of the minority government last spring, one Independent TD, who was ostensibly involved in negotiations, confided that he had no intention of supporting any candidate for taoiseach because that would ruin his credibility with his local electorate.
“I was elected to be an oppositionist and that is what I am going to be, because otherwise I will lose my seat,” he said.
In the event, a number of Independents did eventually back the formation of the Fine Gael-led Government and were rewarded with ministerial office. How that will ultimately play out for them will be one of the fascinating aspects of the next election.
The performance of the Independent Ministers has been as varied as that of their Fine Gael colleagues, with some making a serious impact on their portfolios and others not.
The big question is whether the involvement of Independents in the Government and the move by Donnelly to Fianna Fáil will lead to a public reassessment of the notion that Independents are somehow morally superior to party politicians.
The performance of the two main political parties for the remainder of the current Dáil’s lifetime will also have a critical bearing on whether the confidence of voters in the system can be restored.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have embarked on an experiment about whose outcome neither can be sure. Fine Gael has the benefit of being in office, but its ability to act is severely limited by the Government’s minority position.
Fianna Fáil has the Government at its mercy and can trigger an election at any time, but its room for manoeuvre is curtailed by its confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael and the need to show that it is acting in the national interest.
The arrangement has taken much of the heat out of political exchanges in the Dáil, but that may be no bad thing. In the past, opposition politics amounted to little more than attacking the government of the day, but something different is required now.
The big question is whether the two parties can make the experiment in co-operation work, not simply in terms of keeping the 32nd Dáil going but in delivering solutions to the real problems facing people.
There are no easy answers to the range of challenges facing the country, but if mainstream parties want to halt the fragmentation of the political system they will have to be seen to address them in an honest and coherent manner.