Miriam Lord: Can Ross’s ‘non-party’ win some true believers?

The Independent Alliance wanted to nail down the unstable door before the horse bolted

Leading members of the Independent Alliance held a press conference in Dublin yesterday morning and loudly insisted that they are not unstable.

They had a big job of work to do.

So there was much relief at the top table when Michael Fitzmaurice raced into the room. Big Fitz is a man who gets things done.

The Independent TD for Roscommon-South Leitrim is a leading light in the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not a Party” party. Its founding members were hoping to win their argument by showcasing some DIY skills.

Fitzmaurice had driven across the country to be there. He’d probably shored up a mile of flood defences and dragged a bullock out of a drain with his tractor before breakfast.

The project in Buswells Hotel sounded straightforward enough. But it wasn’t. The main players would need more than a hammer drill and Hilti gun from the boot of Big Fitz’s van.

The job spec?

To shut the unstable door before the government horse has bolted.

Shane Ross, Finian McGrath, John Halligan and Fitzmaurice were very anxious to nail it down. It's flapping around their ears on the doorsteps and banging around newspaper columns and frightening the life out of prospective government partners.

Post-election horse-trading

They aren’t happy.

Enda Kenny

went on record recently to say he would not be doing any deals with Independents when the time comes for post-election horse-trading. Fine Gael looks set to be the largest party in the next Dáil, but Enda will almost certainly need outside support to form a government.

Fianna Fáil is also in with a slim shout, but Micheál Martin hasn’t sounded very enthusiastic about the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not a Party” party either.

Nobody wants instability.

So why would any prospective coalition want to seal their power with the volatile glue of a collection of political sole traders?

“Lookit, as Independents, we talk together and lookit, and many will say ‘do ye have rows?’ and yeah, why wouldn’t ye have rows? Parties have rows,” said Fitzmaurice. “Everyone has a row, but the one great thing about it is, when we sit down together, we’re able to decide and we’re able to work together.”

Who needs manifestos?

As far as he is concerned, “if a responsibility is put on us, we can work constructively – be it in government or not in government – but obviously we’ve made it very clear that we’re prepared to work with anybody that will work with us.

“This stuff that’s coming out in the media – will it destabilise something? I don’t buy into it.”

The party that is not a party will only act like a party (in the loosest sense) when there is a confidence motion in the government that has chosen them as its (multiple) partner. Provided the government is acting in accordance with the Independent Alliance’s charter of principles, the group will vote with them.

But the group has one red-line issue. “We will not compromise on the sacred and core value we have, which is we do not impose the party whip on legislation,” declared Shane Ross. That’s if he had a party to whip, which he hasn’t.

The alliance brought in UCC academic Dr Liam Weeks, who is an authority on Independents in government, to help them bolt their unstable door. He briefly addressed the press conference on his international research findings, which he says debunk the "instability myth" surrounding Independents' participation in government.

He pointed out that during the height of the economic crisis in 2009-2010, it was government backbenchers who caused most trouble to then-taoiseach Brian Cowen, some of whom left Fianna Fáil. On the other hand, Independents such as Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae stayed the course.

The Independent TDs listening to him may not have liked the references to the controversial Lowry, while the late Jackie Healy-Rae was content to support the coalition as long as he got what he wanted for South Kerry.

A number of election candidates who have signed up to the Independent Alliance charter (which is very worthy and aspirational) were at the meeting, including former Green TD and Independent councillor Paul “Gogo” Gogarty. He doesn’t have much time for party leaders who publicly shun Independents during an election campaign.

“It’s all waffle until the numbers add up,” said Gogo, in one of the most sensible and true statements of election 2016.

Finian McGrath described the main parties’ dismissal of Independents as “intellectual and political snobbery. They need “to get over themselves” and their “attitude problem”.

John Halligan was also bullish. “Whether the mainstream parties like it or not, Independents are here to stay.”

So what if Government comes waving little inducements under certain deputies’ noses? Might formerly stalwart members of the “I Can’t Believe It’s Not a Party” party tiptoe off in the night for a nice sweetheart deal for their constituency?

Not at all, believes Ross, the Winston Churchtown of South Dublin. “We are standing on principles and we won’t be getting into a bidding war over the next government.” Which, doubtless, will be banging down his door to work with his brand of “radical but responsible” politics, where all Alliance members will vote however they like on their legislation.

Split? “What you call splitting, we say that’s diversity, and that’s a great virtue,” concludes Ross. Or a split.

And now, the big question. What about a cabinet position?

High office

Lord Ross – generally considered non-leader of his non-party – leaps in to answer, even though he isn’t really that bothered by thoughts of high office.

“We haven’t decided about that, we haven’t made any decision about that at all, ah, and I think that will probably, em, that’ll be a decision which will be made – if it’s appropriate – at the time, by the people elected, ah, so, there’s that, but look, there are two points of view on that.

“I don’t think we’re sold on either.

“One is, yah, is get into cabinet and do what can be done to ensure that you get your policies implemented and your priorities put in place, and the other is that you’re better staying outside and not be captured and becoming an insider in the cabinet, which has happened to so many parties in the past, and, you know, people got in there, they’ve taken the goodies and succumbed to temptation and that’s something we will have to consider, certainly.”

Was that Finian McGrath smirking?

However, should that thing happen to the non-party collective, no doubt Shane will be willing to serve.

Whether Enda would be willing to call is another question.

And that unstable door is still swinging . . .