Will voters remain loyal to small parties and Independents?
Solidarity/People Before Profit aims to puncture Varadkar’s ‘cuddly progressive image’
The performance of Independents Seán Canney, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, Shane Ross, John Halligan and Finian McGrath in Government may influence how their Opposition colleagues perform in the next election. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Large numbers of dispossessed and unaffiliated voters helped Independent and small-party TDs to soar to great heights in 2016. Will they remain loyal next time or drift elsewhere?
Facing into a new Dáil term, the Solidarity/People Before Profit Alliance, Independents4Change, Social Democrats and the Green Party do so with a spring in their step and high hopes of extra seats at the next election.
The Independent brand was certainly strong in 2016. The number of TDs described as “Independent/Others” returned was 23, the same number secured by Sinn Féin.
The fate of some Independents may depend partly on the performance of their colleagues who signed up to serve in Government, essentially trading on the promise they would be able have disproportionate influence.
They certainly have had profile. Minister for Transport Shane Ross (Dublin Rathdown) has rarely been far from the headlines, partly because of the Olympic Council of Ireland controversy but also because of other issues.
Minister of State Finian McGrath has also been prominent, though his wobble over the HPV vaccine prompted Katherine Zappone to say such difficulties “sometimes arise” between Independents and Fine Gael.
Fellow Independent Alliance Kevin “Boxer” Moran (Longford-Westmeath), and Sean Canney (Galway East) have largely kept their heads down and worked steadily, as has John Halligan more recently.
Strike a balance
Most will have to strike a balance between clashing with Fine Gael and compromising to ensure achievements to which they can later point out to their constituents as proof that they made the right choice.
Independents and small-party TDs are concerned about: housing, homelessness, the health service, though the Eighth Amendment also features strongly. Many, although by no means all, seek liberalisation.
The Anti-Austerity Alliance changed its name to Solidarity in March after TDs Paul Murphy (Dublin South West), Ruth Coppinger (Dublin West) and Mick Barry (Cork North Central) were elected in the 2016 general election.
It is registered as a political party in conjunction with the People Before Profit Alliance, which also has three TDs: Richard Boyd-Barrett (Dún Laoghaire), Bríd Smith (Dublin South Central) and Gino Kenny (Dublin Mid-West).
Saying that they would puncture Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s “cuddly progressive image”, People Before Profit’s national secretary Kieran Allen said Varadkar would be depicted as a “skin-deep liberal” in the months ahead.
Sinn Féin’s public flirtation with the idea of becoming the junior partner in a coalition government has been seized on by left-wing rivals, who fish in the same waters for votes.
Paul Murphy of Solidarity, whose already high profile was boosted following his acquittal along with five other men on false imprisonment charges in the Jobstown trial, said Sinn Féin’s ambitions created opportunities.
“Something big happened over the summer, although we knew it already, and that was it emerged Sinn Féin is open to coalition with right-wing parties,” he said.
Solidarity/People Before Profit hopes to win at least nine seats next time – up from six. Dublin Bay North, where Cllr John Lyons polled well in 2016, Limerick City and Louth are among the targets. It holds its think-in next Wednesday.
If Solidarity/People Before Profit is not interested in coalition, the Green Party remembers only too well its experience. In 2011, the Greens lost all of their seats, though Eamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South) and deputy leader Catherine Martin (Dublin Rathdown), were returned in 2016.
With its think-in taking place this week, the Greens pledge to continue the “approach of constructive opposition and trying to work with all parties and none to implement progressive policies”.
The State should take a bigger role in dealing with the homeless; building standards are a priority, along with environmental protection and creating a low-carbon economy.
The Social Democrats hold their gathering on Thursday in Dublin, focusing on the so-called “locked out” generation who face spiralling rents and precarious working arrangements.
“There is a whole generation that is dealing with issues that weren’t dealt with by the generations before them,” said co-leader Catherine Murphy (Kildare North).
Three Social Democrats TDs were elected in 2016. Co-leader Róisín Shortall (Dublin North-West) remains, while Stephen Donnelly is now with Fianna Fáil.
The party will run Jennifer Whitmore in Donnelly’s Wicklow constituency, while Gary Gannon is widely tipped in Dublin Central.
According to Murphy, the party is now much more election-ready than it was in 2016, with an emergency campaign plan already in place. It is organised in 27 constituencies and is developing a presence in another five or six. “We expect to be contesting a lot more constituencies and are very optimistic of increasing our numbers,” she said.
The Independents4Change party has three high-profile members: Mick Wallace (Wexford), Clare Daly (Dublin Fingal) and Joan Collins (Dublin South Central).
They are part of a technical group with Maureen O’Sullivan (Dublin Central), Tommy Broughan (Dublin Bay North), Catherine Connolly (Galway West) and Thomas Pringle (Donegal).
The group of rural TDs that came together in 2016 comprises Michael Healy-Rae and Danny Healy-Rae (Kerry), Mattie McGrath (Tipperary), Michael Harty (Clare), Noel Grealish (Galway West) and Michael Collins (Cork South-West).
The Roscommon-Galway constituency boasts both Minister for Communications Denis Naughten and Michael Fitzmaurice, while Tipperary is home to Michael Lowry and Séamus Healy.
Thanks to the many prominent personalities involved, the small parties and Independent Deputies in the current Dáil have certainly tended to punch above their weight in terms of both political impact and media coverage. Whether the electorate rewards them for that in the next general election depends on the efforts of individual Deputies to prevent their voters from straying.