New wave of 'radicals' in Dáil just oddballs

The maverick deputies are coming across as comic-strip rebels, the Bash Street Kids of Leinster House

The maverick deputies are coming across as comic-strip rebels, the Bash Street Kids of Leinster House

THE MICK Wallace saga, which continues its attrition with the resignation of Finian McGrath as chairman of the Dáil technical group, may at least have the advantage of drawing our attention to the significance and cultural functioning of the sizable rump of maverick deputies which, in a certain restricted light, suggests the present Dáil as the most radical in the history of the State.

In this respect, the outcome of the February 2011 general election – with nearly a quarter of seats won by Independents or members of smaller parties – seemed to point to some more radical alignment or, at least, a period of intensive confrontation with established structures and ideas. What has transpired, however, has been a comedy of erraticism, with only Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly making any real impact from the backbenches.

Were they around today, we can be sure that 1980s left-wing figures such as Jim Kemmy and Noel Browne would be making serious hay, mounting effective solo resistance to Government, troika and the general sense of an absence of alternative to the present menu of solutions.

But despite the unprecedented number of allegedly diverse Independent voices, no lucid alternative perspective has emerged from the February 2011 “revolution”. Unsurprisingly, then, while Sinn Féin struggles to find itself between its divergent identities, Fianna Fáil seems on the verge of a comeback.

For all its numerical impressiveness, the current “radical” Independent sector of the Dáil represents a simmering malcontentism rather than a source of reasoned alternative perspectives. In last year’s election, a significant minority of voters seemed disposed towards mounting a satire on politics by electing oddball candidates as a way of expressing an unfocused disgruntlement against “the establishment”. These “technicolour” deputies have made incarnate a ragbag of sentiments as varied as their personalities: rage, fear, protest, impotence, the desire for revenge or gratuitous change, and – in Mick Wallace’s case – a blunderbuss fuming against a world that seems, contrary to his expectations, to have rendered him unsuccessful and poor.

Wallace is Wexford’s answer to the Monster Raving Loony Party, which for many years has featured on platforms on British election nights. He has no politics and emits no air of conviction on anything other than his own grievances, but his “rebel” image taps into the mood of dissatisfaction in certain sections of the electorate seeking to give two fingers to the “system”.

This tendency may in part have been the collateral consequence of the local radio explosion that occurred in the 1980s, with the various broadcasting franchise areas established at that time serving to fashion discrete and self-regarding micro-climates which nurtured introspective, chauvinistic and incestuous ways of seeing things. From the 1970s, there developed a strong sense that the “national broadcaster” had grown remote from the country-at-large and become excessively Dublin-centric.

The pirate radio explosion of the 1980s gave voices to local communities, which, formalised by the Broadcasting Act of 1988, gave way to a kind of golden age of local broadcasting, in which regional communities were enabled to bypass the “national” media and create their own platforms for local grievances and perceptions – to the detriment, perhaps, of an integrated national consciousness.

It is plausible to suggest that many of these new wave Independents were the creatures of this explosion, instruments of “answering back” by communities that had felt maginalised by “establishments” in the capital.

Some offered considerable promise, but have since their election – somewhat ironically – been caught in the trap of the “national” media’s fixations. Rather than representing the interests and sentiments of their constituents, they have created a sense of a dislocated, yellowpack disgruntlement, unmoored from geographical context or coherent understandings of actually existing problems. Altogether, they come across as a bunch of comic-strip rebels, the Bash Street Kids of Leinster House.

My particular disappointment has been with Ming Flanagan, elected from my hometown, Castlerea. As I wrote during the election campaign, I regarded Ming as an impressive candidate, with a profound sense of the problems of his constituency and the history which begat them.

He was like an experiment by the people of Roscommon/South Leitrim in finding a way of speaking in the modern world that would be recognisably up-to-the-minute and yet carry within itself a strong residue of older and more enduring truths. It was as if the culture had delved into itself to come up with a statement of its own nature that could not so easily be patronised, categorised or disposed of.

Behind his own lines, Ming speaks ably and passionately about many vital matters, but since arriving in the capital has mainly evinced – like most of his technicolour colleagues – a trendy alternativism that endears him to the Dublin-based media without achieving much on behalf of his electorate. It is as if his potential as an alternative voice has been spancilled by the same culture that 30 years ago provoked the local radio explosion that may have made his political career possible.

In the capital, he has been tamed and defanged, reduced to a cartoon figure who espouses fashionable causes for the sake of the oxygen of publicity but offers no real threat or challenge to anyone or any conventional idea.