|Laura Mannion is a Public Affairs Executive with Fennell Public Affairs with an interest in current affairs and politics. She is a graduate of UCD and DIT and has a degree in Law with Politics and a Masters in Public Affairs and Political Communication.|
Last week, the 158 members of the 32nd Dáil met for the fourth time since the majority of members were elected on February 27th – 47 days previously. During the extended interim period, Government and opposition leaders have held talks in attempts to form a stable and cohesive government. However, when the Dáil voted on electing a Taoiseach for the third time, the result remained comprehensively inconclusive. The caretaker Taoiseach received one more vote than a week previously, with the main opposition leader Micheál Martin’s votes stagnating at his own deputies’ 43 ballots. It appears that after five weeks of negotiations and talks, there has been no progress on Government formation – if a vote was held for Taoiseach on February 29th, the day after the election, the result would have been the same as it is now; that is, political stalemate.
In the days following the election, it became clear that the electorate had voted in a largely inconsistent and diverse manner, with the result that the current Dáil is one of the most varied and divisive Lower Houses ever elected. The numbers stack up as follows:
- Fine Gael have held on to 50 seats;
- Fianna Fáil saw 44 deputies elected, including the new Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Feraghaíl who no longer has an active vote;
- Sinn Féin have 24,
- Labour have just seven;
- Social Democrats have three;
- the Green Party have two elected representatives in the Dáil; and
- the newly formed alliance of the AAA and People Before Profit have six seats.
However, even though the latter two parties have registered as a party for electoral reasons, both components retain their separate organisation and identity and can be viewed as a far less formal party structure than others. That leaves a wide cohort of others – including 23 deputies, representing over 17% of the Dáil, and the highest number of Independents ever elected to the chamber.
Independents’ Day, Part 2
Due to the increased popularity of electing Independents, we have seen groupings and alliances forming in attempts to create a sense of identity; the recognition of key features which seek to differentiate one independent from another to the floating voter. This has manifested in the formation of the Independent Alliance, and on a looser basis, the “Rural 5”, a group that established itself after the election. Unlike political parties, these groupings do not aim to highlight or define the ideological similarities of members – it could be argued that Deputies Shane Ross and Michael Fitzmaurice represent the widest possible ideological divide on the Irish political spectrum. They have been formed instead as a result of the popularity of Independent TDs and the desire for some to seek a layer of credibility when it comes to political careers, policy and government formation.
Another, more cynical reading of these new groupings is that members can now retreat from government negotiations as policies may not be in line with the overall group ethos, or “charter for change” in the case of the Independent Alliance – it may be easier to hide behind a consensus decision taken by a group than take responsibilities for your own actions and ownership over your own personal choices.
Talks about Talks
Much of the debate surrounding government talks has been centred on independent deputies and these new groupings: another first for Irish politics. Where once these elected representatives were assumed to lurk on the periphery of debate, chiming in to criticise policy and vote against the establishment (with notable exceptions), they are now being called upon to contribute their best efforts in order to form a government – “in the national interest”, to take up Fine Gael’s phrase of the month. This puts your average Independent in a peculiar position; many are elected due to their opposition of established party stances and policies, and are marked out by voters purely through their recognition as de facto anti-government figures. But the electorate is now calling for a government to be formed as a matter of urgency – people are becoming aggrieved that their elected officials are drawing down their substantial salaries without tackling the issue of government formation in a genuine manner. So while the independents are being courted by the two largest parties, an internal struggle is on-going in their minds: “is it in the public interest to go into government?”, and “is the public interest in my interest?”
The Historical Fence
The events of the last week have been largely unconvincing if we are trying to judge the level of commitment the Independents possess with regards to entering into a functioning, long-term Government, in line with the perception that Independent deputies largely serve as members of the opposition. It can be argued that the significant number of Independents who have stepped away from talks, or refused to engage, are happy with this summation and uninterested in tackling the stereotype. This perception has been based in the reality of the past, the number of Independents has historically always been dwarfed by the number of TDs elected to establishment parties. Even after the General Election in 2011, dubbed as “Independent’s Day” by the media, there were 15 Independents elected in contrast to Fine Gael and Labours’ majority of 113. But the reality has changed – Independent deputies in 2016 make up a sizeable portion of the Dáil, and many of those elected have expressed interest in becoming part of a new political system, reflective of the chamber’s membership. Notwithstanding this, seven weeks on and the status quo has yet to be challenged by any non-party individuals – up until last week.
With political news thin on the ground over of late, there were two widely-reported political updates last week. Any new updates were obsessively covered by the media due to the ongoing struggles faced by starved journalists who attempted to root out stories, after two months of silly-season antics. The leader of Fianna Fáil, subsequent to his failure to be elected as Taoiseach for the third time on 14 April, has stated that he will not stand for election as Taoiseach again when another vote rolls around in a fortnight’s time. This clears the way for the likelihood for a minority Government, led by Fine Gael, to be formed.
And while the bulk of independents continued to mull their prospects over for the eighth week in a row, another significant change occurred. Deputy Katherine Zappone, an unaligned Dublin Independent, voted with the caretaker Government to nominate Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. With another stay being sought to stretch out the decision-making period for the rest of the Independents – the lacklustre “Ag House Agreement”, the latest delay tactic – the former Senator nailed her colours to the mast. Despite earlier statements refuting the possibility of voting for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, newly-elected Zappone joined ranks with Fine Gael and Michael Lowry to increase Enda Kenny’s case for Taoiseach.
On a practical level, she now will have direct access to the person who is likely to be named as Taoiseach when talks are complete. Deputy Zappone will have the opportunity to put forward the issues facing her constituents, along with her priorities in relation to national policy in a more focused and influential way as part of a minority government. Legislation that she introduces will not be automatically shot down, she may have a chance of a seat at the cabinet table due to her early support and she will have access to government resources in order to carry out her work more efficiently. Though these benefits highlight the structural inequalities within the Dáil, it remains that they continue to exist. To many Independent TDs, this level of access and influence would mean that their chances of re-election would automatically double; so why do more of her counterparts not follow suit?
It has been anything but plain-sailing for the TD since the vote – and events unfolding are being closely watched by her fellow Independents as they continue to straddle the fence. The commitment of Deputy Zappone to Fine Gael also functioned to act as an unwelcome reminder to blue-shirt-leaning Independents of the negative consequences of entering into an agreement with an establishment party, particularly one led by Enda Kenny. While her rationale for this decision appears sound, many outraged constituents do not agree. She has stated that she has brought the process of government formation forward with her vote, she has practiced new politics while working towards stability for the Irish people but many of her critics and voters do not share these views. The backlash to the decision has been widespread in the immediate aftermath of the vote, particularly on social media, with journalists and critics lambasting her for breaking promises, “getting into bed with the enemy” and not working towards the change she committed to bringing if elected. While the electoral process goes in cycles, one could assess that her prospects at the next election have plummeted. Whether this is a priority for Deputy Zappone or not remains to be seen, but electoral prospects remain the driving force for many politicians’ endeavours, particularly those of Independents who do not receive part-funds or supports to bolster their campaigns. Independents cannot claim ownership over an economic recovery, improved public services or mass employment, but only over their own actions and comparatively smaller victories.
And therein lies the basis of the current impasse with Independents: the electorate want a government to be formed, but historically Independents are anti-Government – why would an individual abstain from party membership if not opposed to the party’s politics? What has made the situation more complex is that while Independents in the past were described as populist and were on the periphery, the Independents of today receive widespread support from all classes of the electorate – an electorate that is not protesting, but who wants a stable government. This division of the vote has meant that a partnership must be formed; but where does that leave Independents who have spent their political careers in opposition? In more recent times, Independents have acted as effective watchdogs, but more cynically, many Independents based themselves permanently in or around the fence, even in the recent past, ready to welcome some issues while lambasting others – all in line with the public mood. It is grossly unfair to describe all Independents as populist and localist, but while the electorate has changed its views on independents and independents have evolved, the current system remains unsuitable to a Dáil where majorities no longer exist and Independents want to be taken seriously.
Fine Gael have now gathered themselves and returned to the INDs and Fianna Fáil for a second round of negotiations. Where the last round failed, this time there must be progress and it has been opined that the price of support from the Independents may be dangerously high for the current largest party in the Dáil. However, it remains that the cost for Independents could be even higher. Individuals must balance their desire for government membership and possible cabinet involvement with how negative economic and political events will affect their future. They must also consider their core support and how their electorate would react to involvement: an Independent elected on an anti-water and property charges platform will be treated more harshly than a conservative candidate, for example.
The business of running a country is cutthroat — tough decisions must be made on a daily basis and as the Labour Party and countless other junior parties have learned, tough decisions are unpopular. It remains to be seen if Independents are prepared to do the unpopular thing in order to serve the country and our long-term stability. As the mandate for Independent deputies continues to increase, it is up to the elected deputies to carve out a new, less populist role for themselves and persuade their voters to see and value the bigger picture. The system is working against them, thus they must work harder to shape a new mould for Independent deputies in the Oireachtas. The progression of current talks and the length of any minority Government will serve as a reflection of the commitment of Independent deputies to permanently get off their fence and become enduring and valuable members of our political system. With reports of last night’s talks ending optimistically, it will be interesting to see where the Independents now stand.