I’m not sure if the late political commentator Noel Whelan coined the phrase “gene-pool TDs” but it was one very much associated with him.
The greatly increased bloc of Independent TDs in the Dáil now looks like a permanent feature on the Irish political landscape. There were 21 Independents elected to the 33rd Dáil in 2020. In the 2016 general election there were 23, and 14 in 2011.
Before that, while there has been a long tradition of Independent TDs in the Dáil, the numbers had fluctuated greatly between elections. It fell to five, for example, in 1997 and also in 2007, when the non-aligned TD seemed to be a subspecies that was on the verge of extinction.
We are at a time in Irish politics when it is still uncertain if Sinn Féin’s significant advances in 2020 has a permanence about it. Will it become the dominant force in Irish politics or experience an ungracious slither down the greasy pole whenever it gets into Government?
What can be said with more certainty is that in our more complicated and fragmented society, where party fealty has gone out the window, Independents seemed to have carved out a space for themselves that looks long-term. They now make up an eighth of all seats in the Dáil.
By my count, 13 of the current crop are what might be described as “gene pool” TDs: five Fianna Fáil-connected TDs; four from Fine Gael; and two each from Sinn Féin and Labour.
Many of them have developed their own ‘Independent’ brand, far removed from the values and policies of their old parties
That’s not to say the 13 are straight proxies for their former parties and are attracting votes from those who once supported the party. Many of them have developed their own “Independent” brand, far removed from the values and policies of their old parties.
For example, Catherine Connolly was once Labour and took what was originally seen as Michael D Higgins’s Labour seat in Galway West. But that Galway Labour seat exists only if you look at it like a cold-case investigation. Connolly’s views have long ceased to coincide with that of the Labour Party. It’s the same for the Healy-Raes and Mattie McGrath. Being dissident Fianna Fáilers might have won them their seats the first time around. A few elections down the line, they are relying very much on their own ‘Independent brand’. Denis Naughten holds the former Fine Gael seat in Roscommon, but is it likely that he will ever rejoin the party?
Balance of power
Why do people vote for Independent TDs? It’s more complicated than a straight rejection of a party or party politics. On a macro level, there have been moments when Independent TDs have found themselves holding the balance of power, which invests them with a great deal of influence. There were only five Independent TDs elected to the 1997 Dáil, along with Harry Blaney of Independent Fianna Fáil. Bertie Ahern formed a minority Government which needed extra votes for crucial confidence votes.
Jackie Healy-Rae delivered a road to Kilgarvan; Harry Blaney a new bridge linking two peninsulas in North Donegal
In a deal brokered with five of the six TDs (Tony Gregory from Dublin Central did not participate), the Government gave them “favours” for their constituencies in return for their support. Jackie Healy-Rae delivered a road to Kilgarvan; Blaney a new bridge linking two peninsulas in North Donegal. It was that influence that probably contributed to 14 Independents being elected in the 2002 Dáil. But none were in a position to hold the balance of power. Five years later, in 2007, the number of Independents dropped to five, only two of whom were ‘Independent’ Independents: Gregory and Finian McGrath. The other three – Beverley Flynn, Jackie Healy Rae, and Michael Lowry – were all then closer to being proxies for their former parties.
The “balance of power” factor is a tricky one. As long ago as 2011, Finian McGrath saw the potential influence of an Independent bloc. The technical group that he formed never really went anywhere, though. In the run-up to the 2016 election, he and Shane Ross formed the Independent Alliance, a collection of independents which weren’t a party, were whip-less wonders and had no hierarchy. Yet, they were prepared to serve in government rather than influence from outside.
The upshot was that voters regarded the Alliance as a party – and a smaller government party at that. It suffered the same fate, therefore, as smaller parties in government. All the serving Independent ministers (and that included Katherine Zappone) lost their seats or retired.
Dr Liam Weeks of UCC has written extensively on the role of non-aligned parliamentarians in the Dáil and has classified different types of Independent. For a long time after the State was formed, there were Independent unionist TDs as well as Independent republicans. There have also been single-issue TDs: hospital candidates such as Tom Foxe in Roscommon; and the Donegal TD Tom Gildea whose campaign was based, strangely, on TV deflectors. There are also the more familiar “challenging” or dissident Independents, who parted ways with their parties. In the case of left-wing Independents, it was because their former party, Labour, was too conservative and non-confrontational; for Fianna Fáil candidates, in particular, it tended to be because they had not made it through convention, or could not support particularly harsh policies in government.
Because of our system of multi-seat constituencies, Weeks observed that all TDS gravitate to one degree or another to “clientelism” or community focus, because of the importance of local candidate recognition.
The recent experience suggests the big mistake for any Independent TD who wants to retain their seat is going into government. If that’s true, it’s a pity as it reflects a reductive and negative view of politics and of government.