Are independents a danger to democracy?

Liam Weeks*

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.

11 thoughts on “Are independents a danger to democracy?

  1. “So, to clarify, because such TDs don’t vote in a particular way in the Dáil, they are deemed dangerous and self-interested.”

    I stopped reading at the Straw Man.

  2. I have mixed, if not downright confused views in relation to this issue. When we consider it we should possibly also consider the influence exerted in Government by very small parties like the PD’s and the Greens who at times held public support akin to the margin of error in opinion polls. Could this influence on public policy not be characterised in a similar manner as that of independents?

  3. Some very good points in this. One point I would say firstly though is that the reason that most people get riled up by the antics of certain independents is that it is quite obvious that much of the grandstanding that takes place generally has little to do with ideological beliefs and more to do with seat preservation. Therefore it tends to be opportunistic and inconsistent – Healy-Rae & Lowry voted for the Budget. What’s changed?

    However I completely agree that the focus on the voting intentions of Lowry & Healy-Rae, and claims that they are ‘holding the country to ransom’ are ludicrous. Leaving aside the farcical stand of the main opposition parties, what way did the other Independents vote? Using this logic, did Finian McGrath & Maureen O’Sullivan not also hold the country to ransom? What of Sinn Fein? It seems ‘economic treason’ is now rife in Leinster House.

    The media reporting on the ‘facilitation’ which is taking place is a massive dumbing down of this nation. The concept of the main opposition parties voting against this bill under whip, filling the airwaves with rhetoric on the unfairness of it, whilst simultaneously facilitating it’s passing and indeed hoping that it passes (& facilitating pairing arrangements!!) is beyond ridicule really. It seems that the sole raison d’etre of the Irish Republic this week is to pass a bill regardless of what it contains and as quick as possible. This despite the fact that the bill enacts in law some of the most penal & socially divisive fiscal changes in the state’s history. In addition, this passing must take place with as much dramatic effect as possible. It is hoped that we will see ‘debate’ carrying on until the early hours in the next couple of nights as a nation holds its breath waiting for confirmation to come through on the transistor that the bill has made it. Perhaps they will one day make a movie out of these dramatic events. Picture the kid in A Time to Kill running out of the courthouse shouting “he’s innocent”, and replace him with Eamon O’Cuiv shouting “It’s passed. Up Galway”.

    However in saying this, the lack of transparency over what ‘secret deals’ are taking place with Lowry & Healy-Rae is a little nauseating. Regardless of whether or not there is political grand standing taking place, we as a people deserve to know exactly what aspects of the bill are being changed and/or what other benefits are accruing to the constituencies of these Deputies. It is not unreasonable that the spectre of Healy-Rae on the news this evening claiming that he has won concessions for South Kerry would irritate people – regardless of how true his claims are.

  4. @Liam
    Excellent defence of having an electoral system that enables citizens who are not members of political parties to be elected to the Dáil.

    The real question is the extent to which the usual pattern of the Government dominating the Dáil is a threat to democracy.

    FYI, If I remember correctly Independent TD Finian McGrath was among Independent TDs who voted in support the nomination of Bertie Ahern to be Taoiseach in June 2007.

  5. Most of the countries you mention have some form of list PR electoral system. And most also have some lower threshold of the national vote that parties must exceed before they get any seats. Probably necessary to prevent having a large number of smaller parties. Israel has a particularly low threshold (was 1 and now is 2%) and consequently a real problem with fragmented unstable coalitions.

    List PR has its upsides. But one of its downsides is a heavy bias against those not belonging to any party. Not sure how one would fix that. I think one would definitely have to treat independents as a special case. If independents get 10% of the national vote they should really get 10% of seats. But perhaps Irish style PR-STV could be used for all candidates on the ballot paper for independents. Can’t think of any fairer way to slice up the independent share of the vote in a list system.

    People have previously suggested list systems for the Seanad. But I’d fear that unless we were careful we could also largely eliminate any prospects of independents getting elected to it, which would be a real shame.

  6. One of the notable aspects of yesterday’s debate in the Dáil (apart from the fact that very little of it concerned the Finance Bill) was that the demands of Lowry (and by extension Healy-Rae) were national in nature and ones that many people outside their constituencies or even rural Ireland would share.

    • This is what I noticed too – that the independents that held out and delayed pledging support to this were defacto acting in the national interest and not merely to get a hospital or casino built in their town. Shame though they couldn’t have stood up and represented their constituents on national issues when it came to the bank guarantees or welfare cuts etc.

      A threat to democracy is coming from the ” we just need to put businessmen in there to sort it all out” suggestions.

      Michael Martin has already signaled support for technocrats a la USA’s “democracy”.

      Whatever the consequence had the Finance Bill been defeated (as if Labour and Fine Gael would’ve let that happen) much of the commentary came form over- zealous pundits.

      The shameful betrayal of democracy lies with Fianna Fail who have hobbled on for the last few months with little support and arrogantly boasted of having a mandate from 2007 ergo they can essentially do as they please – be that bank guarantee or IMF/EU bail-in/out.

  7. @A Alan Rouge.

    “A threat to democracy is coming from the ” we just need to put businessmen in there to sort it all out” suggestions.”

    Absolutely agree. Who would these business men have been in the last two decades?? Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Fingleton, Sean Quinn and God help us Michael O’LEary …..?

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