OPPOSITION IN FOCUS: INDEPENDENTS:AS A rule of thumb, the number of Independent TDs in the Dáil increases at times of political volatility. With uncertainty there is a tendency towards fragmentation, with voters deserting traditional parties to plump for candidates who are more local or more radical.
History has shown, from the Tony Gregory deal in 1981, that at critical junctures a small number of deputies can wield massive influence. Mostly it has been individual TDs (Jim Kemmy and children’s shoes for example) or a small cluster (the four TDs who forged the deal with the 1997 coalition– Jackie Healy-Rae, Tom Gildea, Mildred Fox and Harry Blaney). Invariably, these TDs have been lucky enough to hold the balance of power. Conversely, when there have been greater numbers of Independents (there were 13 elected in 2002) they have tended to have held less sway. Indeed most of those elected in 2002 lost their seats in the subsequent general election.
However, from within the present group of 19 TDs elected as Independents and from minor parties has emerged a grouping with a cohesion that has given the two Opposition parties, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil, a run for their money. The technical group is made up of 16 TDs with Finian McGrath as chairman and Catherine Murphy as whip.
Only three – Michael Lowry, Michael Healy-Rae and Noel Grealish – have not joined the group. The five TDs from the United Left Alliance (ULA) are members, but the remaining 11 are non-aligned.
The group is a disparate one, comprising some deputies who would be considered hard left to those who are centre right. What has distinguished this grouping from previous technical groups is the dominance of Independents within it and its strength compared to the two Opposition parties: its status is no longer that of the runt of the litter.
It is a tactical group, designed to give its members speaking time and rights in the Dáil that they would otherwise not have as individuals. Like previous groups, the prized Leaders’ Questions slot is shared among three deputies – Joe Higgins, Shane Ross and McGrath. The group also has a right to table private members’ motions for two-day Dáil debates.
Astonishingly, given the diversity, it has managed to get all 16 members to sign their names to many of the motions. Those motions have tended to be the non-economic ones, surrounding the rights of citizens. A motion in November decrying the lack of progress of the Vision for Change mental health policy is a good illustration.
Naturally, given that it is always guaranteed a slot on prime time television, Leaders’ Questions is often used as a yardstick for how well a party or grouping is faring in the Dáil. For the vastly experienced Higgins and Ross, it is water off a duck’s back. Ross is naturally ebullient and has performed well but walked into a haymaker early in the Dáil session when Enda Kenny reminded him of published articles in which he had acted as a cheerleader for Irish Nationwide and Anglo Irish Bank in the past. Higgins has used his piercing humour and turn of phrase more sparingly in the past eight months and there is a view he has not attained the heights he did before losing his seat in 2007.
For McGrath, it has been a learning experience – he has stayed on the safe ground of local issues and disability rights and has not always hit the mark. There is a distinctly left hue to the group, with only four – Ross, Stephen Donnelly, Mattie McGrath and Tom Fleming – categorised as centre or centre-right.
The ULA is a strange concoction – an alliance working within an alliance. There were expectations that People Before Profit and the Socialist Party would merge soon after the election. But progress has been slow and the ULA has not had the impact or cohesion that similar small left-wing political parties like the Workers’ Party had in the past. Part of the reason was that the ULA lacked the structure of a party, or indeed the detailed policy platform.
There were also rumours – wholly dismissed by them – that its two strongest personalities, Higgins and Richard Boyd Barrett, did not get on. More recently, its five TDs have been assigned portfolios and it has begun to produce joint policy papers, notably in the run-up to the budget. But it has not set the world alight. There were expectations of a more informal left-wing sub-group coming together for strategic purposes, that would include the ULA, Thomas Pringle and John Halligan. But that has yet to happen.
The group’s best moment came in October with an effective campaign by its TDs, led by Stephen Donnelly, against the Abbeylara referendum, that arguably had a telling influence on the result. Its worst moments?
The first was when a Dáil microphone eavesdropped Mick Wallace, Luke Flanagan, and Shane Ross passing comments on Mary Mitchell O’Connor. The second was the messy withdrawal of support for David Norris’s presidential candidature and a failed attempt by some TDs to find a new candidate.
If you’re not the balance of power for a government, then you are in opposition and visibility is the name of the game. On that yardstick, the group has been an outstanding success. The only part of the group that can be compared to a party is the quasi-party ULA. And that group has yet to find its feet.
Deputies who are making a name for themselves
WHEN YOU trawl through the ranks of the Independent TDs you can say that pound-for-pound their recognition factor is in the stratosphere compared with backbenchers of all other parties.
Of the 19 deputies who are non-aligned or members of small parties, only a few, such as the anonymous Galway West deputy Noel Grealish, Séamus Healy of Tipperary South and Tom Fleming of Kerry South have not often been on the radar at national level.
At least a dozen of the group have strong national profiles and there is no shortage of limelight seekers, of whom Mattie McGrath is the undisputed master.
But the person who has earned most plaudits from colleagues and pundits is one of the most understated, Catherine Murphy from Kildare North.
She and the Dublin Central TD Maureen O’Sullivan have won the innate trust of all members of the group. Murphy is the technical group’s whip and has forged a strong relationship with the group’s chairman, Finian McGrath.
She is very strong on procedure, is a good organiser, and has been clever in manoeuvring private members’ motions and identifying the best speakers for particular topics. Her own contributions are always well researched.
Stephen Donnelly from Wicklow is another who has impressed, with learned, original and cogently argued contributions on banking, the economy and the euro crisis.
Another understated TD, Thomas Pringle of Donegal South West has also been very strong in this area of policy, but from a more left-wing perspective.
The likes of Shane Ross, Richard Boyd Barrett, Finian McGrath, and Joe Higgins were always going to get attention, as were other newcomers such as Mick Wallace and Luke “Ming” Flanagan.
The latter two were more prominent at the start.
Wallace blotted his copybook with his “Miss Piggy” remark but made a good speech on the budget. Flanagan has divided people but is a strong communicator, who is very strong on rural issues, but tends to be self-regarding.
Clare Daly is the other United Left Alliance member who has impressed.