Health issue likely to unify Independents


ANALYSIS/Independents: The group would have more access to Dáil time and greater flexibility in raising issues, writes Michael O'Regan, Parliamentary Reporter

Health is likely to be the unifying issue among the Independents in the new Dáil.

Some have been elected specifically on health-related issues and are likely to come together to press their case with the new government. Those of like mind may decide to join a mooted Sinn Féin-Green parliamentary alliance to form a technical group which would entitle them to access to private member's time and greater flexibility in raising issues on the Order of Business under the Dáil's standing orders.

One of the eight Independents' Health Alliance candidates, Mr Finian McGrath, was elected. He was a strong candidate in his own right and was tipped to challenge for a seat before he joined the alliance.

A teacher, he was elected to Dublin County Council in 1999. He has a child with disability and is a former chairman of the Dublin branch of Downs Syndrome Ireland. His left-wing leanings mean he would have little difficulty in finding common ground with Mr Tony Gregory, Dublin Central, Mr Seamus Healy, Tipperary South, and Dublin West's Mr Joe Higgins, of the Socialist Party, who sits on the Independent benches.

On the health issue alone, Mr McGrath would have much in common with some of the other Independents.

In Mayo Dr Jerry Cowley, a Mulranny-based family doctor, has led a campaign for emergency helicopters to move trauma patients speedily to hospital. He has also highlighted the needs of elderly people.

Wexford's Dr Liam Twomey, a Rosslare GP, highlighted deficiencies in the health service, while Cavan-Monaghan's Mr Paudge Connolly was a single-issue candidate focusing on the lack of facilities in the hospital in Monaghan town.

Cork South Central's Ms Kathy Sinnott, who is still struggling to win a seat in a recount, achieved national prominence in taking on the State on behalf of her handicapped son.

Mr James Breen, who won in Clare, wants Ennis General Hospital upgraded to an acute medical and surgical hospital. He stood as an Independent following his failure to secure a Fianna Fáil nomination and insists that he will not rejoin the party.

Mr Paddy McHugh, whose election in Galway East caused a sensation, also stood as an Independent after failing to get a Fianna Fáil nomination. The party had hoped for a gain in that constituency and will, no doubt, attempt to woo Mr McHugh back to the fold, giving Fianna Fáil three of the four seats in the constituency.

Should Mr Ahern look to the Independent benches for support in forming a government, he will find a number of deputies with Fianna Fáil connections.

Mr Breen and Mr McHugh will have much in common with Kerry South's Mr Jackie Healy-Rae, who first won a seat as an Independent in 1997 after he failed to get a Fianna Fáil nomination.

Mr Healy-Rae, Wicklow's Ms Mildred Fox (still un-elected) and Donegal North East's Mr Harry Blaney, whose son, Neil, took his seat, all secured deals for their constituencies from supporting the outgoing Government. So there are, potentially, five deputies Mr Ahern could talk to.

Ms Marian Harkin, who was elected in Sligo-Leitrim, might also be open to supporting a minority FF government, if it was to meet her demands on western development which she has been championing for years.

In the last Dáil the deputies supporting the Government were the envy of every TD. They had access to ministers, and the Taoiseach, if necessary, and were accorded kid-glove treatment by the Government's Chief Whip, Mr Seamus Brennan.

He met the deputies every Tuesday to discuss the House's business for the week and any complaints they might have. Their power was considerable, leading to private complaints from Government backbenchers that they were getting preferential treatment.

A proposal from the outgoing Minister for the Environment, Mr Dempsey, that deputies who were also councillors would have to end their dual mandate had to be dropped because of strong opposition from Mr Healy-Rae.

Should Mr Ahern go looking for support among the FF "gene pool" of Independents, he will have an attractive carrot to dangle in front of them.