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?