Varadkar’s deal with Independent TDs will be good for democracy

In our pluralist system anyone can run for the Dáil, regardless of resources

'You know what I want. Now, what do you want?" Such was how Charles Haughey greeted Tony Gregory in 1982 in a bid to secure the Independent TD's vote before the 23rd Dáil met. Although the new Fine Gael leader, Leo Varadkar, may be a bit more subtle in his negotiations with Independents, he will also have to engage with them.

It is a concept alien to party leaders and prime ministers in other countries. Although they are used to negotiating and cutting deals, having to do so with Independent parliamentarians is almost unique to Ireland: Independents are virtually nonexistent in the parliaments of most established democracies. The 23 elected to the Dáil in 2016 exceeded the combined number of Independents in all these other parliaments.

It is not just their presence that gives Independents relevance in Ireland. They also hold what political scientists refer to as blackmail potential: they have the power to veto the formation of a government – and, by implication, to dismiss it.

Fifteen of the 35 governments formed in Ireland since 1927 have had to rely on Independent TDs. Some taoisigh chose to involve them in the cabinet – Enda Kenny repeated what John A Costello had done in the 1948-51 interparty government. Others engaged in horse-trading, such as that between Haughey and Gregory in 1982 and when, in 1997 and 2007, Bertie Ahern negotiated with different groups of Independents.

William T Cosgrave, in the 1920s, and Éamon de Valera, in the 1950s, had little appetite for Gregory-type deals. They preferred to call Independents' bluff, reasoning that they had no wish for early elections.

In most other modern parliamentary democracies Independents are seen as anathema to stability and efficiency

In most other modern parliamentary democracies Independents are seen as anathema to stability and efficiency. Similar concerns have been voiced during the current Dáil, particularly whether it is desirable and sustainable for the government be at the mercy of the whims of Independent TDs.

Are such criticisms fair? Is democracy really worse off because of the involvement of Independents? Many predicted that, after the general election of 2016, Enda Kenny’s administration would not see out the year, as Independents would be unable to stomach the hard choices to be made in office.

But Irish governments that involve Independents are not always short lived. They have lasted an average of two years and eight months, compared with just over three years for majority governments.

And what do commentators mean by stability? On the one hand they can seem to long for the day when a government has a strong majority and can “get things done”. On the other hand they wept at parliament’s ineffectiveness when past governments wielded power almost tyrannically.

More laws do not necessarily make Ireland function any better; they also have to be implemented and observed

The current Dáil has passed less legislation than average. That may not be a cause for concern, however. More laws do not necessarily make Ireland function any better; they also have to be implemented and observed.

Yes, it is taking longer to get Bills through the Oireachtas, but is this necessarily a problem? The legislation to establish Irish Water, in 2013, was guillotined through parliament, and look at the consequences.

We also need to remember that legislating is only one of the Dáil’s three primary functions. The first is to appoint or dismiss a government, the second to scrutinise it.

The current Dáil perhaps wields more power than any previous Dáil. Private Members’ Bills are introduced more regularly, Government bills are defeated, and the executive is held to account. This is in stark contrast to the Fine Gael-Labour coalition that preceded it, when the quartet that was the Economic Management Council – the Taoiseach, the tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and the minister for public expenditure and reform – ran the country in an almost rule-by-decree fashion.

Although some might prefer this to the taoiseach’s having to kowtow to Independents, it is worth remembering that Independents are the product of a pluralist democracy where any individual can run, be elected, air their concerns and have some influence, regardless of the size of their party or purse.

Removing Independents from Irish political life would require removing the factors that make this an open and effective democracy in the first place.

Dr Liam Weeks teaches in the department of government at University College Cork and is author of Independents in Irish Party Democracy (Manchester University Press)