Opinion: Six myths about Independent TDs debunked
Independents they are healthy sign of the openness of our political system
Jackue Healy-Rae. Independents have provided almost 100 per cent support for minority governments, with dissident party backbenchers instead being the main source of instability. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Opinion polls suggest Independents will win record levels of support in the forthcoming election. With those polls indicating no clear winner, Independents may well have a role to play in the formation of the next government.
There are many who decry such an outcome, an opposition built on a number of myths concerning Independents. It is important to challenge these; otherwise the consequence is a misinformed electorate, voting for something that at best they do not understand, or at worst do not want.
Six primary charges are laid against Independents.
1: Independents make it difficult to form a government.
Independents help resolve stasis that can result from electoral stalemate, preventing the frequent election cycles and changes of government that have occurred in Italy or Greece. Negotiations with Independents are relatively swift, while negotiations between parties can be more protracted.
2: Independents cause instability.
Minority governments in Ireland reliant on the support of Independents have lasted an average of two years and eight months, slightly shorter than the average majority government, but not short from an international perspective.
Another measure of stability concerns the reliability of Independents’ support. It is claimed they cannot be relied on, but Independents propping up a government support such administrations in 84 per cent of Dáil votes, compared with 22 per cent support from Independents in Opposition.
In recent years, Independents such as Tom Gildea, Mildred Fox and Jackie Healy-Rae have provided almost 100 per cent support for minority governments, with dissident party backbenchers instead being the main source of instability.
3: Independents skew the allocation of national resources.
Politics by definition is about the distribution of scarce resources. Everyone is competing to get their hands on a slice of the national cake. Independents are no different, but what they get is greatly exaggerated, as many of the projects they claim to deliver have already been earmarked. They also pale in significance to the funding accruing to those inside government, as was found by RTÉ last year in its analysis of the allocation of private housing grants. Mayo and Limerick, respective homes of the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance, received double the national average.
While parties might feel entitled to a larger slice than Independents because they have more seats, this does not explain the greater influence wielded by the four Progressive Democrats TDs in the 1997-2002 coalition compared with the four Independents backing it. Parties have proportionally much more power to determine the allocation of resources.
4: Independents negotiate secret deals, which are neither accountable nor transparent.
Some Independent TDs have negotiated secret deals. But some, such as the Tony Gregory deal in 1982, have been read into the Dáil record.
One of the reasons why some Independents do not publish their arrangements is not because they are given so much, but rather the opposite. If Independents revealed the cost of their support they would be under significant local pressure to demand more. By implication, having to make such deals public might cost governments more.
5: Independents make the Dáil unworkable.
Some claim nothing will get done in parliament if there are too many Independents. However, the aim of parliament should not be to rubber- stamp government-sponsored legislation. A Dáil where legislation takes longer to process because of greater scrutiny by more independent- minded TDs, and where the government does not always get its way, is preferable to the current rule-by-cabinet regime.
6: Independents have no influence in Opposition and a vote for them is a wasted vote.
Independents can have a minimal impact on the Opposition benches because this is the fate of all TDs outside of government. The limited influence TDs have in the Dáil is more to do with the weakness of the Dáil than the weakness of Independents.
Whatever one thinks of independents, their facilitation in Ireland, where anyone with limited resources can run for office, get elected and influence government, is a healthy sign of the openness of our political system.
Contrast this with the current electoral cycle in the US, where running for office from outside the tent is restricted to the extremely wealthy. Independents are a symptom of a functioning, not a failing, electoral democracy.
Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government, University College Cork