Is this the dawn of a new Independents’ Day?
‘Voters no longer tolerate the party puppets who dance to the tune of their master."
‘Many of the assumptions about independents tend to be misplaced, misinformed, and tap into fears rather than aspirations.’ Photograph: Alan Betson, Irish Times
The emergence this week of 1st Independent Mayo, a new type of independent political movement, comes as no surprise. For the past year opinion polls have consistently found support for Independents to be at record levels. With a potential “market” of between 20 and 30 per cent of the electorate, it is inevitable that a wide array of candidates and groups will emerge to tap into this vote.
This increased support for Independents is part of a Europe-wide phenomenon of a growing populist vote, primarily fuelled by economic recession. However, whereas in Europe such voters tend to opt for populist parties such as Ukip in Britain or Podemos in Spain, the Irish experience is different in that this protest is channelled primarily through Independents.
What has yet to be adequately addressed, however, are the consequences this will have for the Irish political system. There are already more Independents in the current Dáil than the combined total elected in other western democracies. What will happen when this number potentially more than doubles at the next election?
Will this new wave of Independents be unwilling to work with the parties or indeed each other, defeating the government at every opportunity, resulting in a period of unmanageable stasis? Or will more Independents increase the level of transparency and accountability, bringing about genuine reform that the parties promised but failed to deliver?
These are the questions those considering a vote for candidates such as those selected under the 1st Independent Mayo initiative need to have answered. The difficulty for these voters is that many of the assumptions about Independents tend to be misplaced and misinformed and to tap into fears, rather than aspirations.
The first fear some have of Independents is of a return to the early 1980s when there were three elections in 18 months because some Independent TDs withdrew their support from government.
However, these governments did not necessarily fall because of Independents’ intransigence. In some cases it was due to parties’ complacency and unwillingness to work with Independents.
We would not expect a government to last long when one party does not consult with its coalition partner or indeed when a party leadership ignores its parliamentary party. Why would we expect it to be any different for Independents if they are disregarded?
Longest administrationFormer taoiseach Bertie Ahern recognised this, so when he formed a minority government with the Progressive Democrats in 1997, there were weekly meetings with the Independent TDs he needed. The consequence was not a short-lived unstable administration as many had predicted, but rather the longest in peacetime history.
The second fear is that it will be difficult for any government to form a coherent national policy if it has to pander to a large number of Independents, each with their own local concern. Is this greatly different to a taoiseach attempting to formulate a policy that appeases the TDs and various local interests within his or her party?
The vast majority of TDs, whether in a party or Independent, are focused on serving the needs of their constituency, and this is the realpolitik that must be confronted when formulating policy in Ireland.
The third fear is that the presence of a large number of Independents in the Dáil will slow things down as they will demand more speaking time, ask more questions of government and perhaps even defeat legislation. Is this necessarily a bad thing?
We are told that one of the reasons for the near collapse of the State in 2008-09 is precisely because things didn’t proceed a bit more slowly in the Dáil – legislation was guillotined, opposition was stifled and anyone who challenged this newspeak was ostracised. Since the parties show no inclination to lessen the party whip, the only way to make the Dáil more independent of government is simply to put more Independents in there.
Further, it is believed that we need parties for politics to work. We can hardly claim that politics worked over the past few years when Ireland lost its fiscal sovereignty. There are a number of regions where there are no parties or where parties are not omnipotent and yet they manage to function effectively and efficiently.
Admittedly some of these are small Pacific island states, but that is missing the point. They are clear evidence that democracy does not collapse in the absence of parties. In fact, some of these countries are ranked among the most democratic in the developing world. In the absence of parties, democracy can be enhanced, not undermined.
Centralisation of powerRather than bemoan the rise of Independents, parties need to realise that this phenomenon is directly related to their own failure. It is the centralisation of power, the prevalence of the party whip and the disengagement from the electorate that have driven voters into the hands of Independents.
Voters no longer tolerate the party puppets who dance to the tune of their master. They want someone with an independent mind and conscience, someone directly accountable and answerable to the electorate. In time, this may help to generate a more effective Dáil that can hold the governments to greater account.
There is no reason why this can’t occur within the parties – it is entirely possible to have independent-minded party TDs who don’t have to agree with all their party’s policies. This will not happen unless the parties engage in meaningful political reform. Until then, perhaps the only way we can have a truly independent Dáil is a Dáil of Independents.
Dr Liam Weeks lectures in the department of government in UCC and is writing a book Independents in Irish Democracy, which will be published by Manchester University Press later this year