The value of independent parliamentarians

Liam Weeks

The current government parties have 77 seats. The combined opposition of Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Féin have 75 seats. The balance of power in the Dáil is thus held by the 10 independent TDs, who include 2 ex-PDs, 4 former FF TDs (one of whom has resigned from the party), one FF gene pool TD, one former FG minister and 2 independents never elected on a party ticket, but one of whom supported Bertie Ahern in his third administration.
Such a scenario of independents being the effective kingmakers is quite unusual in European democracies. For a start, independent candidacies are generally not permitted in Iceland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. In cases like the Czech Republic, Portugal and Slovakia, independents can only run if they place themselves on a party list. No independents were ever elected in modern parliamentary life in Belgium, Germany, Lithuania, Luxembourg, or the Netherlands, while 8 have been elected to the British House of Commons since 1950 (for most of this data see Dawn Brancati, 2009, ‘Winning Alone: The Electoral Fate of Independent Candidates Worldwide’, Journal of Politics 70(3): 648-662).
Independents holding the balance of power is a more common feature in Australia, where state premiers in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia have had to negotiate their support. It is a far more rare occurrence at the federal level, however, with only one such case in modern times.

This raises the question of whether it is desirable in Ireland that government survival and stability is dependent on the whims of independent parliamentarians?
Those who argue that it is not claim that:
1. Independents wield disproportionate power.
2. Independents are not accountable to the national electorate
3. Independents are not interested in what is good for the country, but only in what is good for their respective constituency
4. Independents are poorer quality parliamentarians, who, when elected, rarely speak in the Dáil and do not fit the image of a national legislator
5. Independents have no core political beliefs and can be bought off by anyone offering a greater amount of pork-barrel patronage for their constituency
6. Independents are irresponsible. If parliament was composed entirely of independents, it would most likely descend into chaos.

On the other hand, here are some of the arguments in defence of independents:
1. Independents wield as much power as any parliamentarian: they each only have one Dáil vote. What is to stop any of the backbench TDs withdrawing their support for the government, as Joe Behan did in Wicklow?
2. Are any TDs really accountable to the national electorate? While we might argue that they are via their party label, no matter how unpopular Brian Cowen is nationally for example, it is difficult to see him not retaining his seat in Laois-Offaly at the next election. At the 2007 federal election in Australia, John Howard, the outgoing prime minister, lost his seat, but this is an extremely rare occurrence.
3. Are not all TDs locally-focused, as indeed they have to be to re-ensure election? As Jane Suiter has pointed out, government ministers are quite keen to ensure the distribution of sports grants and money for schools to their own home constituencies. When Tony Gregory read into the Dáil record details of his Gregory Deal with Charles Haughey in 1982, TDs were not angry that this was detrimental to the national interest. Rather they were quite envious that they could not negotiate similar type deals for their own constituencies.
4. How do we measure the quality of legislators? The notion that there is an ideal image of a parliamentarian entirely focused on national issues has been questioned previously by Michael Gallagher and others. In line with the basis of representative democracy, TDs have to focus on whatever issues are important for their electors. If they don’t, they can expect a p45 at the next election. The open contempt expressed by some commentators for independents like Jackie Healy-Rae is a case of intellectual snobbery. Who are we to say who is the most suitable representative for the people of South Kerry, or indeed, to sit in Dáil Éireann? Independents rarely speak in the Dáil simply because the parties gang up against them and deny them speaking rights, as occurred quite recently and was discussed on ‘The Week in Politics’.
5. Because independents are not tied to a whip they can be far more outspoken than party TDs. Consider the impact made by the independent university senators in the Seanad. Those who agree to abide by a whip forgo any opportunity to express their ideological beliefs and are putting party stability and private ambition before the interests of the people.
6. It may well be true that a parliament composed entirely of independents might not be desirable, and most independents I have spoken to agree with such sentiment. But this is not the scenario we face in Ireland. Why can there not be a role in our parliamentary democracy for non-party politicians to work with parties. As well as resulting in a wider spectrum of opinion being expressed, it is an indicator of the openness of democracy, ie rejecting the idea that a cartel of parties is in power. Do we desire a situation a la the US where only multi-millionaires can run for office? Although we may not all agree with the platforms of independents like Tom Gildea (who stood on the issue of a tv deflector mast in 1997), Tom Burke (elected because of his bonesetting skills between 1937 and 1951) and others, is it not a healthy sign of our democracy that such political outsiders can get break into the establishment?

Is there a value in having independents elected to our parliament? Should we be encouraging more to run? Why indeed, are there more independents elected here than anywhere else? Does this indicate an independent streak amongst the Irish electorate? Is this a healthy streak?

3 thoughts on “The value of independent parliamentarians

  1. Many commentators (Elaine Byrne, Vincent Browne and others) have recently railed against the idea of party whips. The logic of their arguments should lead them to support the idea that there are more independents in the Dáil. In fact most independents have voting records similar to TDs in parties – they vote as if they’re subject to a party whip.

    Would we be better off with more independents? TDs subject to a whip may at times vote against their own short term interests/ values. And this may be thought a bad thing. But we can see that in doing so, and subjecting themselves to a whip ensures that they get their way in other votes. If all votes were ‘whip-less’ it could be rather inefficient as TDs would be forced to make decisions on the subject rather than have the shortcut of following the party whip. One may of course argue that this would be desirable as it would force the government to construct better arguments for following their lead. Or it could mean that the independents would need to do some work in deciding how to vote. This might make them more open to interest group capture.

    Of course independents tend to stay loyal or opposed to the government, and do so in return for constituency rewards. This restricts the ability of government to make some sensible choices – like close Tipp Institute, but government realise this is a small price. The independent TDs know this benefits their constituency and the voters reward them.

    I don’t really think that independents presence or absence is the issue. They may be a symptom of the problem with the political system where the Dáil has little power to do anything except push the nuclear button – dismiss the government.

  2. Eoin’s point is interesting on this – that Independents are really just a symptom of the incapacity of party-affiliated backbenchers to influence policy.

    Overall though, it’s difficult to argue that Independents are of to the country. I would argue that many such TDs are incarnations of ‘free rider’ voters in the collective enterprise of electing a parliament to legislative in the national interest.

    It’s easy to pick on a archetypal example, but Jackie Healy-Rae’s website makes for illustrative reading for those who would argue in favour of independent TDs. In his ‘achievements as a TD’ section – the following claims can be found:

    ‘In reaching an agreement to support the government, Jackie was not looking for anything outlandish, or hugely expensive from the taxpayer’s point of view.

    Details of his agreement with Bertie Ahern have never been made public, but the agreement covered several areas including jobs, roads, health and farming. One thing he could always rely on was a sympathetic ear from various ministers when he lobbied for the constituency.

    Employment was near the top of the list and he made strong representations to find a replacement industry for Pretty Polly, in Killarney. Sara Lee later moved into the Pretty Polly premises, providing up to 250 jobs and operating for a number of years, but, unfortunately, the factory has again closed.

    The improvement of roads in the constituency was another priority and millions of euro have been spent on roads since 1997. He also lobbied for the tourist industry, on health issues, the provision of piers (including a government commitment to build a new pier in Cromane) and aid for fishermen and small farmers.

    In the lifetime of the 1997/2002 government, he had direct access to Cabinet ministers and succeeded in obtaining assistance for many projects in the constituency, not all of which made headlines but which were important nonetheless.

    Crucially, his presence also kept up pressure on Kerry South Fianna Fáil TD and Minister for Justice, John O’Donoghue, to deliver for the constituency.’

    For me, the most crucial part of the text is the last sentence. Not only did Healy-Rae lobby for benefits for his consitutency purely on political grounds (rather than any notion of just distribution or need) he also ‘kept up pressure’ on his constituency colleague to ‘deliver for the constituency’ (i.e. funnel disproportionate funds to the constituency). Of course, there is no mention of any contribution whatsoever to national-level policies or excercising oversight of the government.

    Certainly, Liam’s point that all TDs, party-affiliated and independent alike, are locally- focused is a fair one, and in terms of their day-to-day activity there is convincing evidence that this is the case. But at least those TDs who represent a party have signed up to some sort of national-level policy manifesto.

    Independents like Jackie-Healy Rae represent a policy of taking as much as you can get for the constitunecy, regardless of whether such monies are deserved, or even needed (for some reason swimming pools seem to be a particularly sought after item of political pork). Furthermore, they put huge pressure on their constituency colleagues to engage in the same behviour.

  3. Pingback: Is the only truly new Dáil an independent Dáil ? «

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