The Independent groups - who are they and what do they want?

Various demands and views set to complicate government formation talks

In the immediate aftermath of the general election, much attention was given to the three big political parties and how they would go about the delicate and uncertain business of forming a Government.

At the same time, the 21 mostly new Independent TDs of the 33rd Dáil were getting organised.

Three separate groups have now emerged with many Independents hoping to share the role of kingmaker in the coming weeks, although all strenuously deny they can be bought with “wish lists”.

The composition of each group is as multifarious as would be expected.


The rural Independents

The first comprises the rural Independents, including Mattie McGrath, Michael Healy-Rae, Danny Healy-Rae, Carol Nolan, Richard O’Donoghue and Michael Collins.

Negotiating with such a diverse range of TDs may prove complex. This was illustrated during a press conference given by the rural Independents after a meeting with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin on Wednesday afternoon.

In front of Leinster House each TD outlined their priorities – sometimes talking over each other – and it ranged from sewerage schemes, the potential downgrading of Bantry hospital, recently introduced road traffic laws, the penalty points system and flooding.

“The people of rural Ireland have sent us here to represent them. They feel . . . neglected, abandoned and even blackguarded by successive governments,” said Mattie McGrath.

Parties such as Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil may be hoping to secure the support of these smaller groups of Independents in any future vote for taoiseach, but even this will not be a simple matter given the mix of views in each group.

Carol Nolan, who left Sinn Féin after a three-month suspension over her abortion stance, was asked on Wednesday if she would vote for Mary Lou McDonald as taoiseach if the group decides to lean that way.

“We work collectively ... It will be up to the group to decide,” she said.

It is not just the three big parties who will have their work cut out when dealing with the Independent groups either.

“We are as concerned about the environment as the Greens. They do not have a monopoly. They can’t be left in a situation, as they were in the last Government I was in with them [where] they just dictated policies, silly stuff, to the detriment of the economy in the country,” said McGrath.

The regional group

The second, and largest, Independent faction is the newly formed regional group. The convenor is Denis Naughten and it comprises eight other TDs including Seán Canney, Michael Lowry, Peadar Tóibín of Aontú, Verona Murphy, Noel Grealish, Peter Fitzpatrick, Cathal Berry and Matt Shanahan.

This group wasted no time in banding together and met Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar on Tuesday where members urged both leaders to increase the tempo of Government talks.

“We have said, look, two of three parties need to come together and get going on a programme for government. And we are willing to engage at that stage. It is very early days, but we made it clear that there is an urgency to move this along and they cannot continue to navel gaze and rule each other out,” said Naughten.

The regional group is a technical formation, said Naughten, meaning they exist mainly to ensure they are allocated speaking time in the Dáil and to give them first dibs on Oireachtas committees of which they want membership.

Despite this being the original aim, Government formation talks were held en masse with the party leaders although Tóibín sat out of the talks with Varadkar. The group are united by a desire to ensure better regional balance, said Naughten.

The Independent group

The final group is referred to informally as the Independent group. It includes Joan Collins, Catherine Connolly, Thomas Pringle, Marian Harkin, Michael McNamara and Michael Fitzmaurice.

Fitzmaurice is in the process of drawing up a document of his key demands which he plans to circulate to the main parties. The document includes suggestions on how to reform the civil service and increase oversight of local government.

Harkin, who was first elected to the Dáil in 2002 and who served as an MEP from 2004 to 2019, said this group will be prioritising the future of farming, agriculture and food production as well as flooding, housing and health.

She also said the roll-out of broadband will be a “bottom line” issue and that a strong focus must be placed on balanced regional development.

One senior Fine Gael TD with experience of negotiating with Independents in the past said that the task ahead, if Independents are to be included in government again, will be difficult for any party spearheading the process.

“There are three main qualities that matter. The first is the degree to which you are negotiating with a group, or a collection of individuals. Are you dealing with a single set of cohesive demands or is it a group of individuals with their own needs. It will be important in what is about to ensue.

“The second thing that would matter would be the degree to which people have either constituency issues they are looking to prioritise or national issues they want to influence. The third factor is if people are elected on a single matter, or elected on a wider cause.

“This time will be more complicated than the last with multiple parties and a wider selection of Independents with a variety of views.”