Recent media reports of the voting intentions of independent TDs re-the Finance Bill seem to imply that independents undermine the stability of Irish democracy.
The claim is that Jackie Healy-Rae, Michael Lowry et al are acting selfishly by not voting in favour of the Finance Bill or by attempting to extract promises from the government in return for their support.
So, to clarify, because such TDs don’t vote in a particular way in the Dáil (how can anyone deem what is the ‘correct’ way to vote in parliament?), they are deemed dangerous and self-interested. This may well be a fair point. It explains why independent candidacies are generally not permitted in Iceland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.
If it can be shown that independents in Ireland espouse anti-democratic sentiment, for example, there may well be a case for banning them, à la neo-nazi parties in Europe.
I have yet to read the political speeches of every independent, but from what I have browsed over, fascism is not their political ideology.
Let’s be clear. The current independents in the Dáil are just the same as the party TDs. In fact many of them come from the same gene pool, having served a previous career in party politics. Independents, the same as all TDs, represent their constituents to the best of their abilities. They stand for their local area; this is what gets them elected. Brian Cowen aims to deliver for Cork; Micheal Martin for Cork, Jackie Healy-Rae for Kerry South and so on. Party TDs do not vote with a party line for the good of the nation. They do so because it allows them to maximise the return for their constituencies; parties can deliver more than independents, so it pays to stick to a party.
Some might reply to this that the real issue is the calibre of the independents, that is, the latter consist of a bunch of political cranks in whom the serious parties are not interested. First, I have yet to see any reasonable method that measures the ‘quality’ of our parliamentarians. Who are we to judge whom the people of a particular constituency deem worthy of representing them? Second, do we really want to be critical of someone who goes on his/her own against the might of a party machine, someone who does not want to be told what to do by a whip and wants to act independently? After all, life would be so much easier in a party than outside of it. Chances of political advancement would be higher, as would opportunities to deliver for constituents. One could be part of a sociable team and blame the party whip for any unpopular line they had to take on policies.
Why then is there so much criticism of these individuals who choose to go against the established grain then. What about others who stood up to political corruption, who exposed wrongdoings by multinational corporations, who took on vested interests? There are countless examples of individuals who improved the lives of many for standing up for what they believe in and taking on the establishment. Do we really want a cosy cartel of parties omnipotent in the Dáil? Is it not a healthy sign of our democracy that anyone can get elected to parliament, be it Thomas Burke to campaign for free British tv channels or Tom Foxe for a local hospital? Forget the issue on which they stood. The point is they stood against the parties, challenged a prevailing government policy and delivered. Of course some might argue that we should trust governments to make policy and that it should not be interfered with by independents or any interest group. I haven’t met too many such individuals in recent months.
To return to the issue of the Finance Bill, let’s be clear. Contrary to media opinion its passing does not depend on 7 independents. It depends on the Dáil, i.e. every TD. Rather than criticise independents, why not also heap blame on the opposition parties, all of whom have said they will vote against the Bill. Why not criticise the members of these parties who choose to obey the whip rather than their conscience? Are they doing so out of self-interest, in the hope that such loyalty will be rewarded with a place at the cabinet table in the next government? In today’s Irish Times, Stephen Collins notes that if a compromise over the passing of the Finance Bill cannot be reached ‘the alternative is just too awful for anybody to contemplate’.
Laying aside a major assumption that there is a correct way to vote on this bill, if the alternative is so awful then why are there no articles critical of the stance of the opposition parties? They may well respond that their role is to oppose, but is that what we want? Would we not rather TDs obeying their conscience than the party whip?
There seems to be a consensus that one of the reasons for the failure of the Dáil to perform adequately in the face of a financial crisis is its lack of powers vis-à-vis the executive. One of the dominant factors creating such a powerful executive is party discipline. If backbench TDs were more independent-minded, it might afford the Dáil more power. Is this a scenario too awful for anybody to contemplate?
*Liam Weeks is an IRCHSS CARA Fellow at Macquarie University, Sydney. His research is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences with co-funding from the European Commission. He is not intending to run as an independent at the next election.