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14 April 2005 Edition

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The politics of potholes

BY CAOILFHIONN Ní DHONNABHÁIN

Independent TDs Tony Gregory, Finian McGrath, Catherine Murphy and Jerry Cowley

Independent TDs Tony Gregory, Finian McGrath, Catherine Murphy and Jerry Cowley

In recent days, Independent Mayo TD Jerry Cowley announced that a number of Independent Dáil deputies are intending to canvass for Dr Kieran Deeney, who is contesting the West Tyrone constituency in the Westminster elections.

Among those expected to join Cowley in supporting Deeney are Tony Gregory, Paudge Connolly, Marian Harkin, and the newly elected North Kildare Independent TD, Catherine Murphy. Many republicans will be somewhat surprised that Finian McGrath is also expected to be among their number. But they shouldn't be.

The Independent TDs are a motley crew, the majority of whom are self-interested mavericks who have fallen out with whatever political party they were once a member of. A substantial proportion of their number emanate from the Fianna Fáil gene pool — for example Breen, Healy Rae and McHugh all ran as independents after failing to receive a nomination from Fianna Fáil. These people represent the worst aspects of clientelism and nimbyism (Not In My Back Yard).

They spurn the party system and yet regale us with stories of how well they work together as a group. They dream of holding the balance of power after the next election. They hark after the halcyon days of the deal made by Tony Gregory with the minority Fianna Fáil government in 1982 or the more recent Fox/ Healey Rae/ Blaney/ Gildea deal of 1997-2002.

What is interesting about the current collection of independent TDs is their oft-mooted desire to establish a formal alliance. Cowley, Harkin and McGrath have all advocated this.

Yet it is hard to understand what would keep such an alliance together, given the divergent political ideologies of its would-be members. What, for example, has Séamus Healy of the Workers and Unemployed Action Group got in common with closet PD Marian Harkin?

And one might justifiably ask where a formal alliance would stop and a party begin? Would the alliance fight elections on a common manifesto?

The functioning of the parliamentary system in the 26-County state depends upon the deputies being elected to parliament being organised into political groups, each of which presents its policies to the electorate for approval and governs with the mandate received for those policies. The only common policy these people present to the electorate is the fact that they are without party affiliation.

Mayo's Dr Jerry Cowley has apparently drafted a document that suggests it is "within the power of the electorate to return sufficient Independent TDs to hold the balance of power and decide the formation of the next government".

The ultimate question we have to ask is if the public good is served by the election of increasing numbers of Independents and their holding of the balance of power? The idea of a government dependent on a large number of independents, with hugely divergent policies as well as being virtually unmanageable, would give the term rainbow government a whole new meaning.

For example, Cowley's proposed alliance would contain members who are broadly left wing as well as those who are clearly right wing.

When one or two of the more progressive independents come out to ask people to vote for independents, they make no distinction between voting for progressive Independents with particular policies and voting for a disgruntled Fianna Fáiler who decides to run as an independent because he is peeved at failing to receive a nomination.

Séamus Brennan, who was Fianna Fáil whip during the 1997-2002 coalition, claims in Katie Hannon's book, The Naked Politician, that the four Independents who supported the PD/FF government in the 28th Dáil "were very intelligent people who genuinely cared" and that he "never had a moment where they wanted something that was wrong for the country".

This is not true. For example, it is well known fact that the first attempt to abolish the dual mandate between the Dáil and local authorities was abandoned following vociferous opposition from the Independent quartet. We may well ask if the smoking ban would have been introduced if the current coalition government was dependent on Healy Rea's vote. In all probability, it would not have seen the light of day, as the publican from South Kerry, who was bitterly opposed to the smoking ban, would have held the government to ransom.

Entering a coalition involving Independents, no matter how progressive we might think they are, would be a nightmare. The political system in this state at the best of times suffers the ill effects of clientelism, but for state legislators to be vulnerable to the constituency concerns of individual independents, let alone a large number of independents, would be almost unworkable.

And what of the impact of Independents in relation to the specific issues which they got elected on? The so-called health Independents have not been spectacular in their advocacy of health issues. Whether they latch onto the health ticket as a matter of pure opportunism or out of genuine commitment, their time soon becomes eaten up with the job of keeping up with their constituency rivals in terms of chasing up constituency queries.

What difference have the health Independents made to addressing the health problems facing the State? Absolutely none. The problem is that they garner the votes of people who are angry and infuriated with the present health system without presenting proposals for reforming that health system. Their manifesto is usually limited to saving their local hospital. That is why the average voter who wants a reformed health service should shun the hospital Independents and vote for a political party such as Sinn Féin which has coherent and comprehensive proposals for the reform of the health service, for the delivery of healthcare as a right and for ending the two-tier health care service.

Though no one would seek to deny the benefits the Gregory deal achieved for the North Inner City Dublin community which he represented, the greater good is usually a distant thought when Independents join a coalition government. They typically have no vision beyond their own political careers and claiming credit for the filling of potholes in their constituency. They will use their position in a coalition government for the one aim of getting themselves re-elected.

At the end of the day, the truth is that the independent benches in the Dáil are comfortable and safe. They allow supposed progressive TDs such as Finian McGrath to reconcile themselves with aspirant PD members such as Marian Harkin without having to face up to the contradictions of their behaviour.

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