No split in Independent Alliance but there have been differences
Bickering has thrown up question marks about longevity of Independent Alliance
John Halligan: described Kevin “Boxer” Moran as an “idiot” in September 2016
Like a rock band that has been too long on the road, tensions and cracks are appearing among the members of the Independent Alliance.
No split. Nobody yet pursuing solo projects. But over the past two weeks there has been an unmistakable sense of disharmony and disunity.
One incident this week illustrated it. The five TDs – Shane Ross, Finian McGrath, Sean Canney, John Halligan and Kevin “Boxer” Moran – held a budgetary priorities meeting on Tuesday with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe.
Donohoe, as usual, was a model of diplomacy, even when saying no to them. He said no a lot, and the meeting went badly. It was the second such meeting in a week, after which the Independent Alliance felt “upset, annoyed and disappointed”.
But the grievances were not just directed at Fine Gael and Donohoe. There were also internal mutterings and grumblings. These were more than passing.
Unlike the coherent unified group that presented itself last year, there has been a lot more bickering since the summer, throwing up question marks about the longevity of the Independent Alliance.
The alliance wanted betting tax to be increased a fraction from 1 per cent to 1.1 per cent. That would yield an additional €5 million in revenue. The idea had merit, and the alliance thought it might be a runner.
Donohoe rejected the suggestion. His rejection was made a little easier by Moran’s reference to a bookmaker in Kilbeggan who had warned it might have implications for jobs.
According to sources, the mention really irritated Halligan, a Waterford TD. When the five convened for a post-Donohoe debriefing, Halligan berated Moran about his interjection. It quickly descended into a row between the two, said a source.
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There was a bit of “previous” on this. In September 2016, during the throes of the controversy over a second catherisation laboratory for Waterford, Halligan described Moran as an “idiot” in the course of an interview with the Sunday Independent.
While he subsequently apologised to Moran for that comment – explaining the issue of the second lab was an emotional one for him –- there was no such amicable ending to their exchange on Tuesday.
That was the latest in a short list of low-level disagreements since the summer that suggests all is not rosy in the the garden politically.
Canney, a Galway East TD, and Moran, from Westmeath, were very close in the first year of this Dáil. In an unusual arrangement, both agreed to share the post of Minister for State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works.
Canney would take the job for the first year and then swap with Moran. If the Government – always fragile – fell during the first year, Moran would lose out. But if it lasted the full length of the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil, Moran would be in the job for longer.
When the time came to hand over the baton, Canney was reportedly reluctant to do so, and Moran had to force the issue a little. There were suggestions of a distancing between them. But whatever happened, they insist the fences have been mended.
“We are as close as ever,” says Canney. “We talk every day, and I was only in his office last night.”
Nonetheless, there have been other notes of dissonance. Some have been unhappy at various times about how Ross’s big issue, Stepaside Garda station, has come to dominate, or even Halligan’s campaign for a second cath lab.
There have also been complaints about leaks – there is no doubt the Independents don’t have the same discipline as a party would and confidential information isn’t always hermetically sealed.
In spite of that the consensus is the Independent Alliance might be a bit more durable than some suggest. “There are five of us,” says Canney. “We have been working together for a few years now. We have gone into Government and have had a strong impact on the political scene. The programme for government shows our fingerprints all over it.
“There have been individual issues like Stepaside and the cath labs that have been controversial. But overall we have shown that we are more resilient than people think.”
The five TDs have contrasting views on issues, from abortion to Ross’s new drink-driving law. Halligan openly admits it has been a struggle.
“ We have differences but we have come through, and, sure, we have our arguments, some of them heated, but we are still an alliance.”
His overall assessment of the alliance’s impact?
“I am disappointed. We might not have achieved everything we want. I think our brand has suffered at times. We don’t get the recognition we deserve. Some of the stuff we have got over the line has been seen as Fine Gael or the Government rather than us. Are we going to pay the price for it?”
Will they survive until the end of the confidence and supply agreement?
“It is too hard to predict what will happen,” says Halligan. “There is Brexit. There is abortion. You never know. Things can happen in politics.”
Not so much a split then, it seems. Rather a case of creative differences with that difficult second album.