Independents; More for Tipperary/South Kerry/Wicklow is less for everyone else

Independents are back in the news this week, specifically Michael Lowry and his ‘will-he won’t-he’ be in the mix for government formation in a few weeks.

2011 was a peak election for non-party candidates but it looks like the numbers running in 2016 might exceed that previous high point. Independent candidates are not a new phenomenon in Irish politics. In fact, they have been one of the unusual features of the Irish party system for decades. The label independent is applied loosely and it covers a wide variety of candidates.

The first group of independents are those that are disaffected with their political parties. Usually they have been ‘shafted’ by the mother ship, to use the colloquial description and as a result, they choose to run as independent candidates. The Healy Rae dynasty is the epitome of this group.

Often, there is overlap between the disaffected party candidates and the next group of independents who might be classified as local community representatives or local promoter independents. This group includes community activists, who very often campaign on a set of specific local issues. They usually make up a large component of the independent candidates on the ballot. Local hospital candidates tend to be prominent among this group and a new collection are contesting in 2016 on the banner No GP, No Village.

New to the field in 2011 were the national interest independents. Many of these candidates declared on platforms of banking and public service reform. They had some success with Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly both elected in 2011 but they contesting in 2016 under new banners and there is no sign of a return of this group.

Unhelpfully, micro-parties are often included under the label but they are quite different in that although they are small political forces, they contest elections on shared policy platforms and offer integrated policy options to the electorate. The Social Democrats, Renua and the AAA-PBP alliance all fall into this grouping.

The polling data suggest that support for independents is falling from a high of nearly 30 per cent but it is likely that this category of candidates will still do well and their prominence in the polls suggest that there is appetite for political ideas outside of the mainstream parties. However, there are major problems with independents in the political system.


  1. Independents result in the fragmentation of the party system. Large numbers of non party TDs make it more difficult to form governments and can have a de-stabilising effect.
  2. The second, and perhaps more serious, problem occurs when independents are involved in supporting minority governments. They seek to skew the allocation of resources across constituencies. When an independent TD completes a deal with a minority government, they increase the allocation of resources to their constituency but this occurs at the expense of the rest of the country. More for Tipperary/South Kerry/Wicklow is less for everyone else.
  3. Independent candidates rarely produce full election manifestos. Their policy positions are vague on a whole range of issues. Parliaments legislate on a full programme and the voting intentions of independents are unclear.
  4. Deals completed between independents and their minority government partners are not transparent and are rarely made public. In contrast, the programme for government is negotiated between political parties, from their election manifestos, and is made available for everyone to see.
  5. When independent TDs are on the opposition benches, they can have a minimal impact on policy outcomes. Opportunities to scrutinise government legislation, question the Taoiseach and ministers, and initiate legislation can be limited. A small number of independents were particularly prominent in the 2011-16 Dail term, most notably Catherine Murphy and Mick Wallace but as the Dail term comes to a close, 19 TDs are listed as Independents.

Having said all of this, there is a problem with the party system. Clearly, it is not connecting with a significant number of voters. Political parties need to look at their own structures. The overwhelming policy of “control” employed through the party whip system by Irish political parties is a major factor in deterring independent voices from joining political parties. Free voting and more open policy making within parties and parliament would go some way to addressing this deeply unattractive feature of Irish politics. Open votes are used in the UK occasionally, and Canada has been experimenting with freer voting for some time. It may be time for the Dáil and political parties to explore this option.

In the absence of change within political parties, independents bring different voices into the political system. However, they may bring more problems than solutions. They perpetuate the cycle of localism and personalism that is so pervasive in Irish politics. While some independents will argue that they intend to legislate in the national interest, the history of independents within the system is localist in outlook and action.




5 thoughts on “Independents; More for Tipperary/South Kerry/Wicklow is less for everyone else

  1. It should also be noted that the pool of Independents have tended to be more male than the party slates and they were exempted from the gender quotas legislation. Meaning that a combination of parties running 30% female tickets nationally with an much lower % from the independent ranks along with a possible increase in the numbers of Independents elected may result in a Dail with actually fewer women TDs.

    • That’s a good point. I understand that some of the early data from Adrian Kavanagh and Fiona Buckley shows an increase in the number of female independent candidates but it is likely to be well short of the 30% as you say.

  2. It appears that the extent to which so many Irish citizens are rejecting the traditional mainstream parties is perfectly understandable. For example does anyone believe that if FG and Labour had been elected in 2002 or 2007 that the triple (banking, property, fiscal) bust would have been avoided? There would simply have been a slight difference in the cast of characters with their snouts in the trough. The extent to which voters are rejecting the traditional mainstream parties is probably greater in Ireland than elsewhere in the EU.

    It’s also hard to blame citizens for voting in independent TDs when governance is so excessively centralised, the central goverance apparatus is so expansive and the governance function of local authorities has been so completely emasculated. They simply want soneone in the pit where the rules that govern the allocation of the spoils are made. And perversely it can work, because governing parties, irrespective of the representations of the independent TD, will shower the constituency with goodies to advance candidates from their own parties so as to unseat the TD. Naturally the TD will claim credit for the largesse being distributed.

    All of rthe mainstream parties deserve a throrough electoral kicking. FF and the Greens got theirs in 2011. FG and Labour are due a fair bit of kicking now. If it means another election soon after the next one, what matter. Eventually a majority of voters will settle on a stable government when they’ve put some manners on these chancers.

  3. Due to the Irish political system being 100% representative (i.e. citizens do not have any legal means to initiate legislation, nor to veto bad law), the parties have become entrenched in an us-versus-them game. There is no clear ideology difference between the main parties, and policies & issues are simply used as the ball in a back-and-forward game: I hear everyone shout “it’s my turn to serve”.
    We would be better served by a system with multiple small parties form government – as many as 7 perhaps – instead of the “big two”, who manage to cause the untimely death of their smaller partners.
    With such a system, the programme for government would be more important than loyalty to “the party”, and the whip would be so less valuable, as people could more easily move between parties.
    Independents are seen as a bad thing – I can’t argue with the points above – but they are really a barometer of the change taking place in the political landscape.
    In order to get the focus back to fulfilling the needs of 4.6m people, and away from serving he party interests, I suggest we reform our system and make the ordinary citizens a player at the table: see for an example of a campaign to achieve this.

  4. i agree with Paul Hunt’s view that independents are elected because all our political parties and other powers-that-be have centralised power. I go further to say that the exercise of this centralised power is now seen to have been exercised incompetently.
    “Centralised incompetence” is the reciprocal of Peter Mair’s “amoral localism” that some of our political commentators play up.
    For examples of “centralised incompetence”
    1. The disastrously poor performance of both the Central Bank and the Dept. of Finance in dealing with the banks in the run-up to 2008 and since.
    2. The loss of capacity to build about 30,000 new homes per year, which is about the amount needed to keep up with demographic change. It was clear that building 90,000 homes/py was far too much. But why let the whole sector collapse from this overreach?
    3. The recent OECD report on the lack of Dáil oversight of public finances.
    4. The failure to manage the complexities of providing public services eg
    a) what cast of mind closes the only centre for training Gardaí, when it must have been obvious that replacements would be needed to cope with “natural wastage”?
    b) add to that, the report of the Garda Inspectorate detailing the failure of modernisation of the Garda over the past 25 years;
    c) How can anyone be expected to run a public health service based on year-to-year budgeting?
    d) provision of good public transport in our urban areas.

    The effect of centralisation is a lengthening of the feed back loops between the governed and the government.
    Some examples
    1. Why should a full Government Minister be involved at all in either funding or announcing the conversion of a railway track in Kerry to a greenway? Surely, this is something that should be drawn up, funded, implemented by a properly resourced local government with its own independent powers to set local taxes?
    2. Apart from the delays in 999 calls, we are also hearing anedotal evidence of similar delays in dealing with local water services. Now someone with a problem rings irish Water call centre who then ring somebody in the nearest local authority etc..
    3. Local public transport services – rural and urban – surely something that proper local government could organise.

    Perhaps our political science community would try a thought experiment of imagining what it would take to build checks and balances so that the power/influence of independents could be enhanced, along with all those party TDs to whom we transfer our power in general elections, subject to one constraint ie no change to the use of PR-STV in multiseat constituencies.
    But why leave the design and implementation of checks and balances to the very people whose power/influence are subject to these constraints?
    This suggests that we need to go further and design a complete separation of the executive from the directly elected legislature, so that both functions of government work in complementary ways in a system to minmises the possibility of gridlock when serious irreconciliable differences/conflict emerge, as they surely will from time to time.
    In all that, do as Liam O’Connor suggests – ensure the the people have the means to directly raise issues between elections without waiting for politicians, parties, parliaments and policy-makers to come up with options tto cope with changes in attitudes/values/ways of doing things, if most people are convinced of the need for changes after having time to consider the issues emerging.

    The continued support for independents suggest that people understand that powers-that-be are only likely to make changes on a do-minimum basis in terms of centralised power. Despite their very clear failures, the political/governing class do not see any significance for their way of doing things in the the fact that we have only re-elected an outgoing government once since 1969 ie. in 2002.

    Let us see if that pattern continues in this election and the subsequent the process of government formation.

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